Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Abstract art "about nothing"

A number of critics, including Rosalind E. Krauss and T. J. Clark, have suggested that abstract painting represents an effort to create art works that are "about Nothing." Krauss has claimed that "the twentieth century's first wave of pure abstraction was based on the goal ... to make a work about Nothing. The upper-case n in Nothing is the marker of this absolute seriousness ... to paint Nothing, which is to say, all being once it has been stripped of every quality that would materialize or limit it in any way. So purified, this Being is identical with Nothing."

Inspection of the works shows this explanation to be rhetorical and inadequate. If Nothing is the goal, why do abstract works belong to radically different styles? Why does an "unmeaningful" Mondrian look different from an "unmeaningful" Kandinsky.

As an overall explanation, Krauss's gambit is insufficient. Reflection indicates, however, that pursued less dogmatically and exclusively the idea is suggestive, leading to other paths that may be rewarding.

The first attempts to grapple with the idea of "nothing" stem not from the visual arts, but from philosophy, religion, and literature.

A discussion of nothing may fruitfully begin with the pre-Socratic philosophers of archaic Greece who, combining an interest in the cosmos and language, seemed fated to stumble on the matter. But as in the case of infinity, they concluded that the subject of "not-being" (me on) must be handled in a gingerly manner, lest the theme lead to extreme skepticism and paradox. In his dialogues “Parmenides” and “The Sophist,” Plato took up these discussions, with a circumspection bordering on terminal obscurity. Still, the idea of nothing as something got discussed; it appeared in texts that formed part of the Western canon of philosophy.

Socrates was famous for saying that he knew nothing, but this seems to have been false modesty. At Athens St. Paul encountered a dedication "To the Unknown God" (Acts 17:23). The idea, usually found in the plural, agnostoi theoi, probably stems from the ancient Near East, with its idea of the remote otherness of the gods. Be that as it may, the idea has continued to resonate, especially among mystics.

In Judeo-Christian thought, out of nothing God made something (the cosmos); this would seem to settle the matter, once there was nothing, but by divine fiat it yielded to the cosmos. This reflection did not stop Christian mystics from contemplating the matter, and it is in mysticism that the idea found its most fruitful territory.

In addition to nothing, there was an ideal of reduced being, or emptying (kenosis). This ideal gained force by being attributed to Christ himself--his "humanation" was a kind of willed self-belittling. (see Philippians 2:7 in the New Testament). In Christian theology kenosis is used both as an explanation of the Incarnation and an indication of the nature of God's voluntary self-limiting, undertaken for the benefit of humanity.

A natural dilemma arises when Christian theology posits a God outside of time and space, who enters into our realm to become human incarnate. The doctrine of kenosis attempts to explain what God chose to give up in terms of his divine attributes in order to assume human nature. Since the incarnate Jesus is simultaneously fully human and fully divine, kenotic thinking holds that these changes were temporarily assumed by God in his incarnation, and that when Jesus ascended back into heaven following the Resurrection, God fully reassumed all of his original attributes.
More broadly, the idea is that God is self-emptying. He poured out himself to create the cosmos and the universe, and everything within it. Therefore, it is our duty to pour out ourselves. (One may recall C.S. Lewis's statement in Mere Christianity that a painter pours his ideas out in his work, and yet remains a particular being distinct from his painting.) In so doing, some hold, we become deified like God. Another term for this process is theosis. However, theosis carries no implication of becoming like God in nature or essence, which is pantheism; instead, it concerns becoming united to God through his Energies, one example of which being the Uncreated Energy of grace.

Some literary critics hold that kenosis is the affect (or feeling) experienced by the reader of lyric or poetry forms. It is the experience of the emptying of the ego-personality of the reader into the immediate sensory manipulation of poetics. In this sense, kenosis inflicts an experience of timelessness upon the reader.

What we experience may not be literally emptying, but a sense of being unable to express our deepest perceptions and feeling. Here we enter the realm of negative or apophatic theology. One of the first to articulate the theology in was the Apostle whose mention of an unknown god in the book of Acts 17:23 is the foundation of the exposition of Dionysius the Areopagite (ca. 500 CE). Advocates of the via negativa, the Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century said that they believed in God, but they did not believe that God exists. In contrast, making positive statements about the nature of God, which occurs in most other forms of Christian theology, is sometimes called cataphatic theology. Adherents of the contrasting apophatic tradition hold that God is beyond the limits of what humans can understand, and that one should not seek God by means of intellectual understanding, but through a direct experience of the love (in Western Christianity) or the Energies (in Eastern Christianity) of God. Apophatic statements are central to much theology in Orthodox Christianity.

Analogies present themselves in Byzantine art, notable in the stylization of the figures and their almost weightless appearance against a uniform gold ground. It is as if these holy figures did not want to assert too much materiality. Opponents of images were to carry this reticence to an ultimate, undesirable extreme. In fact, iconoclasm represents the most radical "emptying": outright erasure of works of art.

Kenotic emptying is not the same as absence of meaning: it may even enhance meaning--though in ways that resist verbalization. Christian mystics produced many variations on emptying. In the fifteenth century Nicholas of Cusa wrote a treatise "Of Learned Ignorance" in which he daringly posited that in fact nothing can be equated with God. "For that reason Dionysius the Areopagite says that an understanding of God is not so much an approach toward something as toward nothing; and sacred ignorance teaches me that what seems nothing to the intellect is the incomprehensible Maximum." Nicholas also affirmed, perhaps following St. Bonaventure, that "the nature of God is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere."

Perhaps the most widespread use of Negative theology occurs in the Hindu scriptures, mainly the Upanishads, where Vedantic theologians speak of the nature of Brahman, the Supreme Cosmic Spirit as beyond human comprehension. The Taittiriya hymn speak of Brahman as “one where the mind does not reach.” Yet the scriptures themselves speak of Brahman's positive aspect also, in such statements as "Brahman is Bliss.”
The most famous expression of Negative theology in the Upanishads is found in the chant neti neti, meaning "not this, not this," or "neither this, nor that." In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya is questioned by his students on the nature of God. He responds, "It is not this and it is not that" (neti, neti). God is not real as we are real, nor is He unreal. He is not living in the sense humans live, nor is he dead. He is not compassionate (in our sense of the term), nor is he uncompassionate. And so forth. We can never truly define God in words. All we can do is say, it isn't this, but also, it isn't that either.
There is a striking similarity between the western concept of negative theology, and Buddhist thought concerning Nirvana, which is also unconfined to time, space, or even existence and non-existence. In the Tipitika, the early Buddhist canon of scriptures, Gautama Buddha is recorded as describing Nirvana in terms of what it is not: "There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated." (Udana VIII.3).
Shunyata is a key Buddhist philosophical term, especially in the Mahayana or Northern School, which includes the Chan variety, better known in its Japanese spelling as Zen. It is not the extinction of nirvana, but a pregnant potentiality of the "ground of being" or, more accurately, becoming. It is usually translated as "voidness" or "emptiness". In its prime philosophical sense it was defined by the famous philosopher Nagarjuna as denoting the lack of fixed essence which he found in all phenomena. As all things are compounded of various dharmas (elements, phenomena), and eventually decay back into their constituents, Nagarjuna argues that we cannot point to any true essence of the compound; its essential nature, he says, is shunya, void. This is also a denial of all permanent identity, and the concept of self or soul. This doctrine goes back to roots associated with the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, and the term is found in the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism. Two exceptions, that is, uncompounded phenomena, are admitted: space (akasa) and nirvana. The exception for space may be significant in terms of art. The void contains within itself all possibilities, so the term "empty" is rather misleading. The void later is seen as devoid of limits, of boundaries, of fixed forms, and especially in Chan/Zen, of conceptual structures. In all likelihood, the concept of shunyata had major influence on Chinese painting, fitting in nicely with the previously influential concept of the formless Tao (Dao), and may be seen in the mistiness, clouds, and abysms of Chinese landscape painting, but this is my own speculation. In the Chan tradition, the void became a major subject of meditative contemplation or immersion, pointing back towards nirvana (or satori), and that must have influenced whatever art was created under Chan/Zen auspices; it also developed numinosity and became an object of worship in other Mahayana schools.

The theme of emptiness recurs frequently in the writings of the great Japanese Buddhist priest Kukai (774-835). He even distinguishes five types of emptiness.

While emptiness or the void is an important aspect of Buddhism, the faith must not be equated with nothingness itself. That is a Western simplication.

An interesting theme in later Japanese Buddhist art is the successive stylizations of the seated form of Bodhidarma, the zen Patriarch, a sequence concluding in a free-form circle (enso).

Another visualization is the cosmic diagrams known as mandalas. The most impressive examples are probably those of Tibet and Nepal, many of which have been acquired by Western collectors. In the 1920s, mandalas attracted the interest of Carl Gustav Jung, who detected striking similarities with products of the "outsider art" of mental patients. From such parallels he formed the hypothesis that they might reflect primordial contents of the collective unconscious. While this idea remains controversial, it has helped some Western artists to appropriate the forms.

Buddhist ideas, especially Chan/Zen ones, were reinforced by the indigenous Chinese tradition of Taoism, as embodied in the classic Tao te-ching ("The Way and Its Power"). This short but potent text is traditionally ascribed to Lao-tse, writing in approximately the third century BCE. The author laments the decadence of his age with its oversophistication. The only solution is to return to the simplicity of the untutored peasant. Indeed something even more radical is needed. This insight leads to the central taoist doctrine, wu-wei or inaction. A difficult concept, it is perhaps best expressed aphoristically: "Act without acting; find flavor where there is no flavor," and "If you wish to shrink it, you must certainly stretch it." Such precepts are neither logical or illogical, but perhaps simply alogical. Or to use the vocabulary of the Russian futurists, they are neither rational nor irrational, but transrational (zaum).

These ideas underwent a sea-change when presented to Western audiences. Our commonly accepted views often need correction or supplementation. It is also necessary to document at which point in time the Eastern ideas made themselves felt in the West. Michael Sullivan's studies of the meeting of East and West in art, excellent as far as they go, do not deal with pottery and the tea ceremony, popularized in the West by Kazuo Okakura just after the turn of the century.

Japanese pottery is often the vehicle for the aesthetic of the wabi-sabi (cultivated poverty or simplicity), featuring effects of the irregular, the unexpected, the accidental, and even the deformed. In some ways recalling the quasiminimalist affinities of our Shaker furniture, the wabi-sabi taste differs from it in being deliberately unpristine, for it embraces what might be termed the perfection of the imperfect. A somewhat similar idea occurs in the Japanese poetic form known as the haiku. In this genre the poet must condense his or her thoughts into a mere 17 syllables. Moreover, the imagery typically runs to events of seemingly little significance, as the falling of cherry blossoms or the jumping of a frog into a pond.

Since the so-called "opening" of the country in the mid-nineteenth century, Japanese culture has attracted many admirers in the West. Frank Lloyd Wright was impressed by Japanese art at the World's Columbian Exhibition in 1893.

A fascination with Japan often led to the source of many of the ideas in China. After the turn of the century Wright became interested in the Tao Te-ching, the fountainhead of the Taoist tradition. In that work the American architect appreciated the definition of a house as a "useful void." In 1910 he visited Europe, where he encountered works that flowed together with these Eastern lessons. At the Coonley Playhouse in the Chicago suburbs he created abstract stained glass (1912).

The tremendous range and quality of Chinese ceramics has seduced generations of Western collectors. Many have been drawn to the pictorialism and narrative of Ming and Qing wares. Others, however, who regard themselves as having the most refined taste, gravitate to Song ceramics, which are often nonfigural. In these consummate pieces the connoisseur is restricted to appreciating the shape, the texture, and the subtleties of the colored glazes. Such a taste is clearly similar to the love for abstract painting.

In Post-Carolingian Europe, the tenth and most of the eleventh century was a true dark age--a "nothing." Out of this void arose the first vernacular literature that through its sophistication and formal complexity ranks as the first chapter of the literature of Europe, the provencal poetry of the troubadours, The first major figure was William IX (1071-1126), who has no known significant forerunners. Coming from the void so to speak it was appropriate that he should write a poem on the void, or more specifically on "nothing" (nien, cognate with modern French néant, of Jean-Paul Sartre fame).

I will make a poem of exactly nothing [dreyt nien];
There'll be nothing in it of me or anyone else,
Nothing about love or youth
Or anything else.

The boast seems to be a variation on the perennial gambit of the adunaton: "I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles."

Renaissance authors, eager to show their skill with words, sometimes venture into special realms of playfulness and paradoxes. The theme of nothing proved attractive to them. The theme is sounded in a Latin poem of Jean Passerat (mid 16th cent), which notes that "nothing is richer than precious stones"; "nothing is higher than heaven"; "nothing is lower than hell," "more glorious than virtue" and so forth. In an anonymous English poem of a slightly later period, "On the letter O," the ideas of cosmic perfection stemming from circularity and of totality (the Latin word omnis) link up with the concept of zero, which the letter also expresses. However (it is worth remarking parenthetically), In the original Arabic numbers, as still today, zero is represented by a dot, the smallest representable entity that is still an entity. Historically some numbers originally represented things: Roman V was a hand; X, two hands. Nowadays we generally fail to notice this origin. V and X are a kind of abstraction from, starting with stylized representation and moving towards obscuring this.

The common French word for nothing, rien, expresses it's own paradox since etymologically it was "something" (the Latin rem, "thing").

In art, the Renaissance first grappled with the problem of cast shadows, which did not appear in the Middle Ages. The shadow, especially if seen alone, is an apt metaphor for diminished existence, a "something" to be sure, but one that only hints at full being.

The concept of nothing has also engaged the modern world. A number of currents flow through the works of Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), a writer whose achievement was widely influential, both within and outside of France.

Flaubert's earlier novels focus on the elements of characterization, milieu, and plot that were integral to the narrative tradition. Madame Bovary is unforgettable not only for its title character, but also for also the author's mordant portrayal of the provincial setting that sealed her fate. However, Flaubert was also concerned with literary craft, finding the right words and rhythms--a search which required immense amounts of time and effort.

Flaubert's later works are characterized by an odd sense of detachment, from the reader and from the author. The occurrences have a sense of unreality; they may or may not have occurred.

These concerns came to be seen as the literary version of formalism. They seemed particularly striking in a genre that has always honored mimesis, the imitation of reality.

Flaubert's almost monastic life as a dedicated, and very slow writer in his Norman country house evoked from him a sense that so little happened he was living in the void (le néant).

Among the writers influenced by Flaubert was Mallarmé, who pushed formalism further. However, his story belongs mainly to Symbolism.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries philosophers on the European continent have been drawn to the idea of nothingness. This reflects their interest in the concept of being, of which nothingness is the dialectical opposite. These interests were reinforced by reading the ancient Greek philosophical texts, where (as noted above) the concept was treated with circumspection and a certain amount of obscurity, the latter being a problem that also afflicts latter-day speculators in the realm.

Anglo-American thinkers have been unenthusiastic. "Nothing is an awe inspiring yet essentially undigested concept, highly esteemed by writers of a mystical or existentialist tendency, but by most others regarded with anxiety, nausea, or panic." [P.L. Heath, in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.]

The theme has been particularly popular among Existentialists, who enjoyed a remarkable vogue in the middle years of the twentieth century. The title of the masterwork of Jean-Paul Sartre is Being and Nothingness (L'Etre et le néant; 1943). Sartrean existentialism enjoyed considerable prestige among American artists of the Abstract Expressionist phase--though some have questioned how deep the commitment was. Currently enjoying a major revival, Martin Heidegger held that life's meaning is that it is a journey towards death--in personal terms the essence of nothingness. Earlier the poet Walt Whitman had expressed the insight that the invisible world of spirit is also the universe of death. In our own day, some have understood the luminous paintings of Mark Rothko as a replication of this experience of near death.

This long trajectory shows that simply to invoke that abstract art is about nothing is not in itself helpful. However, if the idea is understood in a broader sense---that in certain developments, abstract art is "nothing-like," that it confronts us with the void--it may be of value.

REFERENCES. Robert Martin Adams, Nil: Episodes of the Literary Conquest of the Void During the 19th Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1966; David J. Clarke, The Influence of Oriental Thought on Postwar American Painting and Sculpture, New York: Garland, 1988; Rosalie L. Colie, Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966 (esp. chs. 7-8, pp. 219-72); Roger-Pol Droit, Le culte du néant: Les philosophes et le Bouddha, Paris: Seuil, 1997.

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