THE POLITICS OF ABSTRACTION
Representation occurs when one thing, say, colors smeared on a canvas, makes us think of something else, say, a mountain valley at sunset. Abstraction occurs when one thing, say, colors smeared on a canvas, makes us think of, well, colors smeared on a canvas.
Abstraction is shapes, lines, colors that represent only themselves—we might call it a special case of representation. Or, we might (as is most common) say it is a case of non-representation. Abstraction does not re-present anything. This does not mean, however, that it has no meaning, but only that its meaning lies in its own substance and structure. An abstract painting may evoke an idea, say, of movement, or of energy, as is often the case with Abstract Expressionist works. But this is only because most of us demand that a work of art ‘means’ something. A mathematical equation, such as E=mc2, is symbolic of a basic relationship between energy and matter, as opposed to a representational description of that relationship. As a symbolic expression, it is more scientifically useful than a picture of an atomic explosion, which re-presents that same relationship, but only in terms of its effects. Most of us would agree, however, that a movie of a fireball and mushroom cloud rising over the desert or the city of Hiroshima, gets the point across more vividly than the equation. The effects are what are important, or at least more understandable, to most people.
Architecture and music are the most abstract of the arts. They are both rooted in precise mathematical relationships played out across space and time. Still, their abstractness can become representational when it starts to symbolize something. What does a Gothic cathedral symbolize? Technological progress? The victory of ideas over matter? Or, the power of religion? The importance of piety? For most people, it will be the latter more than the former, and in a quite literal way: the Gothic cathedral and all the buildings modeled on it, are didactic symbols of devotion to Christianity. So, too, a Bach Cantata cannot be heard entirely apart from its intended setting. Even the most agnostic listeners will feel the force of its religious passion.
What is the symbolism of a Modernist icon such as the Tugendhat house? Technological progress? The victory of ideas over matter? Or…what? However wide its influence on the design of houses and other buildings that followed (and it was considerable), this seminal work of architecture somehow resists being symbolic. To the contrary, it remains emphatically abstract, even to those who know about it. Beethoven’s late piano sonatas fall into the same category. They move us for what they are and not for what they represent.
It is fairly clear that political systems relying on propaganda to control the way people think and feel can make the most effective use of representational music and architecture. When the national anthem is played, everyone knows what it means and responds on cue. The same with the Capitol in Washington, D.C., or the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Abstract works cannot be used to the same ends. For example, the revolutionary Communist regime in the USSR, which for a brief period promoted an ideal of egalitarianism, encouraged the uncompromising abstractions of Constructivism and Suprematism. However, when this regime became a rightist autocracy, it tolerated only Social Realism—even Malevich started painting colorful images of peasants—and a Stalinist version of classical architecture. The same in Germany. During the liberal Weimar years, abstract art and architecture flourished, but, when the ultra-right Nazis took power, abstraction became ‘degenerate,’ and representational design was the only acceptable possibility: the classicism of Speer, which symbolized, via Greece and Rome, Germany’s historically superior moral authority over its decadent enemies; or, the mock-rural styles of houses and other buildings that made the same point by extolling Germany’s honest peasantry. In Rome itself, during the same period, we discover that the Rationalist movement in architecture was encouraged by Socialists, one of whom was Mussolini. The abstractions of Futurism and Terragni’s astrattisti comaschi were, however, pushed aside by Novecento art and a vaguely classical Fascist architecture, when Mussolini took a sharp right turn to absolute dictatorship.
Rightist, totalitarian rule needs to constantly enflame people’s emotions with conflicting fears and hopes that can only be resolved in the person of a charismatic Fürher, Duce, Maximum Leader, or Big Brother. Democracy and egalitarian systems employ propaganda, but it usually has a different message: think, understand, choose. Unlike autocracies, democracies rely on the intelligence of their people, and believe that through education (as opposed to training) and the freedom to make difficult choices, people will act wisely in their collective self-interest. Here, abstract art and architecture—which demand personal interpretation and inventive adaptation to change—are appropriate challenges.
In the USA, which is arguably more egalitarian in its aspirations than many other societies, abstraction has had a hard time taking root, not to say becoming widely popular. Nevertheless the USA has been a sympathetic environment for artists, composers, and architects of radical abstraction, from Pollock to Rothko, from Ives to Cage, from Neutra to Bunshaft. Of course, abstraction is in retreat at the moment, as American politics has moved relentlessly to the right. It is no surprise that picturesque post-Modernism emerged during the reactionary Nixon years and flourished under the charismatic leadership of Reagan, and has never retreated, even though its forms have mutated, on occasion mimicking even those of egalitarian Modernism.
Today, there is a nostalgia for the abstractions of Modernism that amounts to reducing it to a mere style among many others. That appears to be finely democratic with regard to offering choices, but it is a false choice if the abstractions resemble the old ones, which have by now become comfortable representations of a lost innocence. Abstraction, like democracy, is demanding of each of us—often discomfiting, and always difficult to attain.
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- October 23, 2008 / 11:57 am
- Lebbeus Woods