During a recent visit to the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, I once again witnessed a person viewing an abstract painting who exclaimed with derision, “My five year old could do that.” I had to chuckle, thinking of how often the guards in the Modern Wing must hear this, just as “Here we go!” must drive a carnival ride operator crazy. But for a painter visiting a museum, this experience is annoying, and I really have to restrain myself when I hear such a comment. However, it hit me this time that my annoyance may be unfair, since I come to the museum armed with many years of studying and practicing art, while of course this is not the case for everyone. Perhaps these irreverent reactions, then, are results of the frustration of not understanding, maybe even fear or embarrassment of incomprehension. After all, there is no objective truth in visual art.
For instance, I could look at a blackboard filled with what to me would be cryptic symbols and notations, but to a mathematician would be a beautiful proof. While I could appreciate the apparent complication of this proof, enjoy the patterns laid out, and instinctively know that something brilliant lies beneath, in no way could I pretend to understand it as it was intended. However, would it be right for me to sarcastically say, “My five year old could do that”? One could relate this to any abstract form of art or thought, be it music, poetry, or literature, not to mention theology, philosophy or theoretical physics. To this point, I would like to share an excerpt from a wonderful book that I received years ago as a gift from an artist friend.
The book is titled Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, by Leonard Shlain. Chapter six compares Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci, both of whom were, according to Shlain, “endowed with minds as incisive as cut glass”. The following excerpt from this chapter offers some insight into abstract thinking.
“Newton and Leonardo both traveled in the rarefied atmosphere of the brain’s highest function, abstraction. Newton’s invention of the calculus demanded the most difficult level of abstract thinking from those who attempted to follow him. Leonardo was similarly interested in abstract designs. In his Treatise on Painting, he spoke of a method ‘of quickening the spirit of invention.’ He advised artists:
‘You should look at certain walls stained with damp, or at stones of uneven colour. If you have to invent some backgrounds you will be able to see in these the likeness of divine landscapes, adorned with mountains, ruins, rocks, woods, great plains, hills and valleys in great variety; and expressions of faces and clothes and an infinity of things which you will be able to reduce to their complete and proper forms. In such walls the same thing happens as in the sound of bells, in whose stroke you may find every named word which you can imagine.’
Leonardo’s interest in images without things led him to be the first European artist to draw a landscape. In so doing, he took the important step away from concrete and symbolic representation toward abstraction. Pure landscapes were utterly unimaginable to Greek, Roman, or Christian artists because they do not include the usual hierarchy of man-made things or people. Instead they are the beginning of a recognition of patterns rather than objects. His interest in abstract pattern intensified until Leonardo became preoccupied with pure geometrical designs. His notebooks are filled with pictures that have finally no identifiable image. Later in Leonardo’s life, he did many drawings for his Eruption of Deluge (1514), that second coming of the flood, purifying with water the sins of humankind. In these drawings, the complex shapes of massive walls of falling water achieve a level of art-without-image that anticipated by four hundred years the abstract works of Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian.”
So abstract thought in the visual arts proves to be nothing new. One may not immediately associate Leonardo Da Vinci with abstract art, yet he veered off from tradition in the 1500s, long before what we perceive to be the beginning of the modern movement in the early 1900s. Yet even in 2015, there remains such doubt about the merits of, for example, a 65 year old Jackson Pollack painting. In fact, there often seems to be a bristling revulsion to such a work, raising the questions: Is there a lack in our education system where the visual arts are concerned? What is it exactly that brings up such condescending attitudes against modern art? Are these feelings also applied to a Miles Davis composition or an e.e. cummings poem, or are they exclusive to the visual arts?