In a famous letter to the French mathematician Jacques Hadamard, Einstein confesses:
“The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities, which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images, which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined… The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously, only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.
What follows is an account of a project to investigate the idea that abstract paintings tap into a fundamental, primitive part of our existence - the part of us that experiences life without words, beyond language, and transcending definitions.
The making process
Einstein’s letter is a reminder that an important thing that art does is to externalise the minds of maker and viewer. The artist guides us to the threshold of being by placing before us pictures representative of his or her morals, experiences, emotions and values. The hope of the painter is that they are enough like our own to reassure both maker and viewer of their authenticity and that they have a legitimate place in the wider world. A picture articulates the experiences of our very existence, such as matter, light, time and order, because they are recognised as microcosmic representations of the world. This is the short answer the question, what is art? It also introduces related questions that can be investigated in terms of two central problems of how and why paintings are made. These questions are:
Does painting proceed along the lines of musical composition where a particular structure is taken as a theme that is repeatedly varied and each variation is a valid entity? Or is making a painting like a process of scientific experimentation where all possibilities of placing lines, shapes and colours have to be examined before one particular arrangement is taken as being ideal?
The truth of the first proposition is a self-evident because from its beginnings, representational painting has been bound up with the existence of unity in the art of individuals and of schools. The second proposition is less obvious, but is best investigated from the philosophy of abstract art, which involves the interdependent visual processes of invention of an image and its reception. An appropriate point to start an analysis of the second proposition is at the forefront of abstract art, where art and science come together as a struggle with the concept of the marked surface as an evolved aspect of being human. Gerhardt Richter, who has an outstanding presence in the contemporary world of abstract art summarises the ‘making’ and ‘viewing’ aspects of his craft as follows:
“ ‘What’ is the hardest thing, because it is the essence; ‘How’ is easy by comparison. To start off with the ‘How’ is frivolous, but legitimate, Apply the ‘How’ and thus, use the requirements of technique, the material and physical possibilities, in order to realize the intention. The intention is to invent nothing, no idea, no composition, no form, and to receive everything; composition, object, form, idea, picture” Gerhardt Richter.
This leaves open the question of feedback from viewing the surface of the canvas to the artist and viewer. This was answered by Robert Rauschenberg (1975) as follows.
A good painting is one that is misunderstood for a very long time. When you get understanding or if you can remember what you are looking at, well. Then there is no need for it, it’s finished. When the painting starts looking like the way you remember it, well. Then that’s the end of that painting. And like the reason I’m interested in all those changes, actual changes, something that exists, and like I found out recently that scientists use the term ‘real time’, then it will have a presence that’s related to that particular moment, and the fact that you are the one that’s experiencing it”
Both Richter and Rauschenberg were influenced by John Cage, the legendary musician/ composer/artist who befriended both artists in Paris in 1949, encouraging them to approach their art without preconceived ideas. Cage was a prolific lecturer, particularly in New York City, and his famous "Lecture on Nothing" (1949) advocated "nonintention" on the part of artists, and a receptiveness to and acceptance of ordinary life in the previously "hallowed" halls of the fine art world. This contributed to a pivotal shift away from Abstract Expressionism and geometric abstraction; in sound (music) and colour (in art). In 1986 Richter himself described his abstractions as a search for something "which I could not plan, which is better, cleverer, than I am, something which is also more universal"
Based on the above quotations, the first part of our project is to make pictures, which involve starting with nothing. There are no ideas, and therefore no target composition or forms. We make marks in a random process that adds form, colour, line, texture, pattern, resulting in a composition. This allows us freedom and flexibility to express our world viewers and inner realities. To achieve this baseline it is necessary to return to the basic human behaviour of making marks. Any training in art must be renounced and the picture maker must simply rely on access to a surface, pigments and applicators. Our process involves randomly applying paint to the canvas in response to what the maker sees emerging in the picture plane. The response is made with hand gestures, such as picking up a tube of paint and spreading it e.g. with finger, brush or piece of crumpled paper, or adding collage components. Composition, object, form and idea are then perceived as a sequence of outcomes as the painting progresses, each merging into the next. We end the making process when a memorable ‘something’ exists.
The viewing process
The second part of the project is to use our abstract pictures to elicit responses of viewers, on the supposition that it is through its texture, structure and matrix that an abstract painting detaches itself from all privileged conventions of perceptual cognitive and semantic experiences. In this sense, it is a test of the viewer to make it legible. Here we are in need of objective criteria that others might learn from and apply.
Here we are dealing with what it means to be human and live socially with the concepts of:
· aesthetic preference i.e. the degree with which people like a particular visual stimulus or not, how much they prefer it to another, or how they rate its beauty,
· aesthetic judgment i.e. the valuation of a certain visual stimulus.
· and, aesthetic appreciation i.e. the human capacity to divide the world into beautiful and ugly things, to prefer a blue car to a red one, and to like blond men more than others.
The first two concepts are dependent on education and other cultural influences. But it is likely that aesthetic appreciation is a general genetic endowment that:
“was present at least at the time of our species’ birth, though it probably built on pre-existing cognitive and affective processes. It led the first Homo sapiens to decorate their bodies and to make necklaces, enabled our upper Paleolithic ancestors to create breath-taking murals on cave walls, drove Michelangelo to sculpt David, and allows us to admire all of this. But it also allowed our ancestors to avoid settling in resourceless environments, feeling attracted by sick-looking people, and it allows us to avoid living in bare-walled houses, and wearing brown with red’.
Every painting, abstract as well as representational, is open to all sorts of meanings, but at the same time all paintings point beyond themselves. The "meanings" often referred to as being the paramount criterion of "high art" revolve around historic, philosophic, and religious dimensions. Religious images of a sensory reality are expressed in Christianity for example, in saints and their lives, but projections of a non-religious extrasensory reality can better be addressed through abstract painting. Richter speaks of this transcendental side to abstract painting. When we look at a picture representing a material subject our response is to dwell on the subject matter to feed our material understanding of it and its cultural context. Our response to an abstract work of art, which is not produced in response to a predetermined objective, is to dwell on its spiritual richness to feed our own aesthetic thoughtfulness. To the viewer of the painting, references to the real world may be seen and where one individual can make out and 'see' the information or an idea with, another viewer may have a completely different experience seeing the work in a completely different way.
A link between the work of many of the artists emerging in the 1990’s is that the work lives purely through its audience, in other words the art takes place within the interaction between the viewer, with his/her body of knowledge, and the art object, as information structured in a particular way by the artist, whereas unseen, it remains simply structured information and ceases to be art.” Jackson Pollock, one of America's most famous abstract painters of this era described the response of one of his viewers as follows:
"Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or any end. He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was."
It is left to the viewer to relate to the paintings within their own framework of expectation and understanding. In the final analysis the seemingly impersonal method we have chosen for this investigation leaves our work fundamentally open to interpretation, so that it is free to mean anything and nothing at the same time. This is perhaps its real significance - that it is at once both an affirmation and a calling into question of the meaning of art.
Here are some pointers to gaining meaning from abstract works.
One way to gain meaning is to look at abstract art in the same way that you would listen to music. This is how one educational website described this approach to elicit meaning.
“When you listen to music, you don't try to hold on to the notes - you let them wash over you. Let your eyes wander over the painting the way the notes of a symphony wash over your soul. Let your eyes play with the painting, slipping around corners, following the twirls, twists and turns, dipping in and out of the surface. Let your eyes dance around the piece. Rather than trying to figure out what the painting looks like, just allow yourself to be taken in by the painting. See what emotions, sensations or memories emerge. Let your eyes relax and travel around the piece without expectation. Examine the colours, forms, materials, surface, and how they interact with each other. Take your time. Let the painting "speak" to you”.
Regarding scientific studies, Kurt A Bruder has investigated how viewers verbalize their experience of paintings in order to interactively manufacture meaning. This sense-making process is consequential not merely for the viewers' understanding of the artwork but for their conception of the world, and of themselves and others in it. Perhaps most significant, viewers employ artwork as a material and symbolic resource in the ceaseless interactive fabrication of their own identities. Bruder’s study explored the talk of viewers as they encountered paintings in an art gallery. An inductive analysis of conversations recorded between viewers and one of the researchers resulted in the identification of three categories of art talk: Evaluation, Attraction, and Storytelling. Further, the authors distinguish two design features governing this kind of talk, Narration and Reification.
Marcos Nadal Roberts carried out research into the complexity and aesthetic preference for diverse pictorial stimuli and found that people tend to base their rating of the complexity of visual stimuli on different aspects, depending on their sex and the kind of stimulus. His results suggest that there are three main categories of response:
(i) those related with the amount and variety of elements,
(ii) those related with object recognition and scene organization,
(iii) and (iii) asymmetry. These three aspects of complexity seem to be related in different ways to general ratings of the complexity and to ratings of beauty of visual stimuli,
Finally, the analogy with music is worth taking further. It is claimed by Abraham Walkowitz that music is the ideal of all art. Abstract painting "dwells in the realm of music with an equivalent emotion. Its melody is attuned to the receptive eye as music to the ear." According to Jerome Ashmore, "pure music and non-objective painting are alike:
· in their richness of purely aesthetic experience, that is, as an experience of sensuousness;
· in ignoring physical objects as models for representation;
· and alike in being a stimulus to something analogous to mystical experience.
The mystical experience provides an illusion, which is accepted as a genuine insight into part of the basic character of the universe, an insight 'felt' to be much more 'real' than any provided by physical objects.
However, in order to be an equivalent experience to listening to music, a picture as a production has to be presented as a sequence of images on the way to an end point. These intermediates would then be somewhat analogous to musical movements. They would be entities that have to be viewed in a certain sequence. Richter has photographed the various stages on his way to making some of his abstract pictures. These have been described as a rhythm of becoming and passing away. Each one in the sequence differs both in terms of the style of the marks and textures and hence they do not form a unity in the sense of traditional composition. Each is a state of a temporal continuum that is stored as a snapshot. By looking at them in sequence the viewer is reliving the ‘score’ of Richter’s creativity.
The education resource
The following six pictures are presented as a resource for downloading or eliciting written comments about aesthetic preferences.
1 (original size 20cm X 20cm)
2 (original size 20cm X 20cm)
3 (original size 20cm X 20cm)
4 (original size 20cm X 20cm)
5 (original size 20cm X 20cm)
6 (original size 20cm X 40cm)