Monday, August 29, 2011

Frank Stella's on linguistic meaning subverting artistic meaning in modern art.

Stella was one of the pioneers of hard edge abstraction, and yet in the post-pop art world turned against it in favor of more complex forms. His very insightful book "Working Space", culled from lectures on aesthetics given at Harvard, provides quite a critique of the strategies that much but not all non-representational art used, and points to some of the problems with movements and trends taking place in the present day.

The gist of Stella's criticism of abstract expressionism is that it replaces artistic values with linguistic values. Stella isn't objecting to folks making abstract shapes, or to art being non-representational, quite the opposite. These qualities have been part of his work throughout his career. Instead, he thinks that some modern art, starting with Kandinsky and going on, has eschewed pictorial sense in its attempt to make meaning and has instead depended on what Stella refers to as a linguistic sensibility in order to make what it has to say felt. Stella believes that there is a certain aesthetic mode of perception that is activated when we look at art, that uses certain cues to allow us to project into the painting an interior world or life that we as outsiders now have access to.

Stella's take on modern art as depending on linguistic meaning is simple: say you're looking at a Kandinsky painting that has reds, blues, and yellows, arranged in certain shapes--organic ovals, twisted circles, squares, triangles--surrounded by black outlines, punctuated with straight and curved black lines. According to Kandinsky, his colors are meant to convey certain feelings or emotions, and his shapes have similar types of meanings attached to them. A triangle puts out a different feel than a square does, looking either harmonious or energetic because of its points, for instance. A rectangle puts out a different feeling than an oval. Gestural lines, that is lines that are included that go in different directions without obvious relation to the shapes, are also thought to embody different feelings or moods. Each of these is a symbol. When the different sections of shapes, colors, and lines are arranged in juxtaposition they modify each other's symbolic meaning, building up a more complex set of meanings that, when extended, defines the over all meaning of a painting. But, even though all this is well and good, according to Stella what's really going on is that the viewer is constructing sentences of meaning from the different elements on the page, and the symbols elements serve as subjects, objects, verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. Successive sentences in turn modify each other to create paragraphs, so to speak. In Stella's opinion, this is not really art in either a conventional or non-conventional sense but just a complicated game. The unspoken hope in many of these paintings is that the sense of meaning being conveyed will be close enough to one that the viewer has either seen or experienced so that he or she will be able to identify it with something in reality itself. According to Stella, real art needs to make use of other tools to make its meaning known.

The relevance of all of this to today's artistic scene comes from the increasing infiltration of outright text into art. Following post-structuralism, saying that every meaning out there is composed of text and that everything is not only metaphorically but literally contextualized, literature has been used by certain artists' to not only modify and comment on but occasionally to completely replace the more straightforwardly aesthetic meaning in their work. The danger in this strategy of construction lies in the myriad of ways that insertions of text can create cheap gimmicks, twists on the norm that depend more on their linguistic content than on actual ideas, that depend on the unusual sharpness of novelty coming from a non-artistic strategy in order to make their work have meaning. Which is not to imply that all critical use of symbols and juxtaposition is gimmicky.

If a person has to depend on text and textual symbolic analysis for folks to really understand what they're trying to say, to decipher their works, then it suggests to me that they can't say whatever they want to say with artistic means alone. It's much easier to work a textual reference into a piece than it is to communicate the sense of what you're trying to say through the piece's composition, subject matter, or treatment, to say nothing of abstract elements present that are still linked compositionally to an overall whole that allows them to exist as something more than just word fragments.

Stella points to the later works of Rothko and the last works of Jackson Pollack as containing abstract techniques that transcend pure linguistic symbolism. Picasso's works done after analytic cubism are also cited.

Stella's solution involves creating interior space within the canvas where a suspension of disbelief can occur, leading to the perception of the shapes as meaningful in a way not dependent on formalistic elements.

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