On Abstraction, Power and Beauty in Art

“Is the power to arouse such life-giving feelings to be found in abstract art?”

On Collecting by Lord Eccles page 110

“As far as I can tell, the human spirit is not and never will be satisfied with what can be proved logically or mathematically, i.e. with what science can do to transform the physical world. More people may appear to be irreligious, materialistic, and even happier than they were a generation ago. Is this because science is supplying the food for their spirit? Surely not, but science can make men forget that they need such food, blinding them with theories, statistics, machines and a rising standard of life. Blind men, like caged birds, are not always miserable, but they are living at a level below that which nature intended.”

On Collecting by Lord Eccles page 110-111

I have loved Lord Eccles’s book On Collecting. It is often very dated but it is a jewel of a book. This book is one of the reasons I am a collector. True, I had the impulse to begin with but this book opened up new worlds and new frontiers for me. I recommend reading it if you are a collector or if you are a writer or an artist. However, I must take exception with two of his opinions and I have an elaboration.

The first exception is that he lumps mathematics in with science and engineering. Mathematics is itself an art. It is art. Likewise, logic, cousin to mathematics, is also art. There is no higher beauty than a proof or well-formed formula. My second exception is that he confuses abstract art and nonrepresentational art, both painting and sculpture. All art, from the most realistic photograph, to photorealistic paintings, to detailed landscapes by Frederick Church, is abstract. Let me repeat that. All art is abstract.

Even if you had a magic camera that could capture the sights, sounds, feel of the air, the tastes and smells of a scene, it would still be an abstraction. It would be from the artist’s point of view at the time of the artist’s choosing. It would not be reality but a representation, an abstraction of reality.

My wife, Kim, and I were browsing and enjoying the art at Modernism, a delightful gallery in San Francisco on Market, when Martin Muller came up to us to extol the nonrepresentational qualities of his current show. He showed us a painting by an artist, whose name I have forgotten, and then showed us another, abstract painting by the same artist. He wanted to show us how this artist could paint well both as a representational still life painter and as a completely nonrepresentational painter. Kim pointed out to him that his “nonrepresentational” painting was actually an abstraction on the still life. Martin promptly moved the paintings so that they both hung together, the abstract still life below its more representational brother. I regret we did not buy both paintings on the spot. Martin and I got a lesson about seeing from Kim. In this Lord Eccles is absolutely correct, bring your wife with you when you buy art. If you don’t have a wife, borrow one. Women have far better eyes than men. (As a side note, you will not go wrong listening to Martin’s advice. I still wish I had bought some of the Russian art he had on hand or the photographs of Sherrie Levine.)

But let us say that an artists creates nonrepresentational art. No abstraction on nature or on a still life or on the human form. Unless the artist is just going to randomly fling paint around, or have a random number generator hooked up to a paint sprayer do it for him, you truly cannot get around design. And design cannot get around the human condition or the real world. Even Pollock had geometric figures, and faces in his later work, hidden in the painting. As soon as you start thinking about design, nature and the real world intrudes into all paintings.

“Whereas Manzi told his students to follow nature, the authors of the other quotations declare that ‘the whole process is opposite to that of drawing from life’, ‘the volume is chosen without reference to mankind’, and so we have ‘a new world’ and ‘demigods’. The tradition maintains that a man cannot add a cubit to his stature, by which I think Christ meant that we have to remain human, within the scale of man and not try to become gods.”

On Collecting by Lord Eccles. Page 115-116.

And it is precisely because we cannot do anything but ‘remain human’ that puts the lie to artists becoming demigods. No matter how hard we try, we cannot move outside of the human experience.

In the same way that all art is an abstraction, all storytelling is also an abstraction. One cannot provide the details that make up reality nor would doing so make for good story telling. It is often not appropriate to even give as much detail in a story as an abstract painter gives in a painting. And with speculative fiction, there must be a fine balance between detail and abstraction. How much science should we put into a speculative fiction tale, that is, a science fiction story, and how much characterization? I explore this idea in my two other articles on the topic, Where has the idea in Science Fiction gone? and Norman Spinrad of Speculative Present agrees with me. But the most important ingredients in any fiction, especially with respect to abstraciton, are power and beauty.

“We can strongly agree that when introduced to a work of art the shock of beauty should come first in time, but equally we must insist that this immediate reaction does not complete our judgement of the quality of the work, and it is this second stage which is so difficult with abstract art. In my case to fall for an object at first sight is a necessary preliminary before I can rouse my capacity to assess, with any hope of being right, whether the work possesses that mysterious compound of beauty and power which radiates outwards from a masterpiece. The delight of the eye has to be followed by the recognition of something else in the work which appeals to the spirit.”

On Collecting by Lord Eccles. Page 108.

There is no better advice for writers and storytellers. Even with the modern preoccupation to “get to the action” as fast as you can in a novel or short story, if all you have is action, without something that will appeal to the spirit, then the story will not be remembered. The story will be read, perhaps even with joy, and then forgotten. There must be a combination of beauty and power in all writing. If one skimps on the power and indulges in the beauty, you risk writing fluff. If one skimps on the beauty and indulges in power, you risk writing a sermon. There has to be a balance between beautiful writing, beautiful story and powerful words, powerful ideas. And truly, in the type of fiction I like to write, humorous science fiction and fantasy, it is difficult to portray humor, power and beauty with the same stroke of the pen.

In the end, Lord Eccles comes around to this way of thinking. All art starts with a human frame of reference.

“What Marini says of sculpture is equally true of painting. The last word is with Picasso:

‘There is in fact no such thing as abstract art…
One always begins with something.'”

On Collecting by Lord Eccles. Page 120.

He then gives advice for buying abstract paintings which could be applied equally to any style of painting or sculpture as well as writing or book collecting.

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