Aesthetic Paradoxes of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art

This paper is about the new relations that arise between contemporary-works of art and the person concerned with aesthetics or the observant observer or the ideal critic or whatever you call him. Perhaps it is itself aesthetics in that it examines this relation and points out the paradoxes inherent in the relation and in the activity of the artist himself.

Like many of the barriers between what were formerly separate branches of art or even completely different practices—for instance, between painting and sculpture or between literature and painting or between music and speech—the barriers and divisions between painting or creation in the visual arts and aesthetics or criticism are collapsing in an illuminating way in contemporary art. So are the once clear distinctions between ‘art’ and ‘life’ and between ‘art’ and ‘nature’ and with this collapse of distinctions in the concrete subject matter of aesthetics the distinctions between critical activities such as ethics and aesthetics also dissolve. Such merging, regrouping and reversal of usual functions lead to paradoxes which can be concretely presented as absurd questions. The exploration of the way such paradoxes necessarily arise from the operations and intentions of contemporary art can be darkly illuminating of the way modern artists operate near or on the edge of the impossible —in the field of the absurd as has been said—and of their new, more complex and intimate relation to the observer.

The field of contemporary art might be described as being concen­trated at two poles of creative activity. At the one pole that which is externally given by the urban environment is selected and accepted as creation. This is popularly called ‘Pop Art’. The other pole consists of a creation out of no given, or the minimum possible given—out of the act of painting itself—what is called abstract expressionism or action painting. These two involve diametrically different interrelations be­tween the art work and the critic or the act of criticizing. In between these poles lie many intermediate activities—such as conventional or unconventional representational painting where the objects represented are presented by the external world but the artist does the painting him­self by his own activity and the phenomenologically interesting ‘op’ art where the artist works more or less as an engineer and the activity of the work of art occurs as an optical phenomenon in the viewer’s eyes. But consideration of the extremes should be most illuminating.

Pop Art is in a way a return to the object as an avant-garde movement after abstract painting by literally presenting the ordinary object itself, not a painted representation of it, or else by making large images for serious or satiric contemplation from the banal images of advertising and newspapers to which one normally gives only fleeting attention. One of its first exponents, Robert Rauschenberg, had a large retro­spective exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery two years ago. Into the context of an abstract painting he fastened photographs of objects, clocks or radios that were functioning, and made subtle visual puns between painting and everyday objects or between levels of images. For instance one of his paintings embodied the visual pun between an orange spot and a still life painting of an orange and a photograph of an orange and the written word ‘orange’. It forced the spectator to shift his way of looking at things several times within the same picture, as a good joke does. He formulated his activity aptly in the statement: ‘I act in the region between art and life.’ Other painters and sculptors, in the way in which avant-garde artists do, hurried to the extreme of this position by giving up more and more of the painterly context and interplay with the object and presenting either the object increasingly on its own or merely the image of a banal environmental image say from the comics or tabloid papers. This tendency was well exemplified in an exhibition of post-war art at the Tate Gallery last year and also in the American section of the Venice Biennale. For instance, one pop artist presented earlier in an elegant formal context of geometrical painting a bathroom shower spray with real light from a concealed electric bulb spreading from it as water would—an almost poetical ‘conceit’. This was partly transformed and commented on by juxtaposition and paint. Later he presented barely a white washbasin attached to a black canvas —just by itself, no comment. Or Warhol presented first a complex of overlapping and richly interfering silk-screen copies of a tabloid photo­graph that had a certain painterly richness in their accidental irregulari­ties and colour interferences and even a certain formal structure in the irregularly repeated rectangles. Later he carried this to the extreme, presenting only an enlarged silk-screen reproduction of a photograph of a film star. A pop sculptor, Chamberlain, ‘presents’ obsolete or wrecked cars, which have been crushed into a more or less neat rectangular shape by a car demolition machine, as themselves ready-made sculpture. The complete self-destroying extreme of this activity is in the Artists’ Supermarket in New York, where ordinary supermarket items—tins of Heinz soup signed by artists or plastic replicas of them—can be bought for very high prices.

The Pop Art movement is not a straightforward critical satire of society as was the somewhat similar Dadaist movement between the wars. It is more a delight or satisfaction in what is in the modern city and an endless repetition of it or a participation as artists in the endless repetition of industrial production. In pop art a great proportion of the creative activity—or that activity involved which is different from what any non-artist or non-critic could do in buying a washbasin or a smashed-up car or a photograph of Marilyn Monroe—consists in making the aesthetic judgement: ‘This object is worthy of detached sustained contemplation. This is beautiful—out of all context of its place and use in ordinary life—stop and look.’ This attitude demands the cessation of the ulterior motives with which one normally looks at useful articles or commercial images. The veil of utility and intentions is rent and one sees them new in their forms and is sophisticatedly aware of the joke of their being there. Thus the spectator can exactly repeat the experience of the artist, looking hard for the first time at something banal without being excluded from the mysterious act of actually making it. His activity is in seeing significances into it, seeing the joke or making up apt jokes of his own, seeing it as a form. In a sense, if he has appreciated it, he has done it; he has by his attention transformed an ordinary object into an object of art.

This results in various paradoxes. Is a given object a work of art or not depending on who says it is? Is the same object a better work of art if it is found or selected by a better critic or artist or placed in a better museum? Is a broken-up car a work of art in a museum and a broken-up car in a car dump not or vice versa? (Was a particularly elegant and spectator-involving object in a recent exhibition at the Tate, which consisted of a white translucent curtain and a red sign with ‘Fire Exit’ written on it, less a work of art than the white washbasin attached to a black canvas which was its companion, simply because it was a fire exit?) Thus arise absurdities which are, however, in a way apt because this kind of art functions partly by making witty or ironical or simply hysterical comments on its environment. Thus it is that such paintings, like jokes that cannot bear repetition or like a shock of surprise which is not a surprise the second time, become rapidly obsolescent. (In a recent discussion o£ avant-garde art on the third programme it was commented ‘Art aspires to the condition of cooking’.)

But such paradoxes are more importantly illuminating of the new and different relations between spectator and object—the object is not in itself an object of art; it becomes one only through its relation to him. This is the inverse of the usual situation in which the artist or col­lector becomes such through the works of art he has made or collected. The work of art might be said to exist in the logical space between the spectator and itself-as-an-independent-object. He creates it as art by the attention he brings to it. So these paradoxes bring the art object, the artist and the spectator closer together.

And then what happens when artist, art object and spectator do come together? What becomes of the critic’s function when the artist has appropriated his usual function of saying ‘This object is worth looking at’, and thereupon signing it? In the detached serious or sophisticated contemplation of any object one can find some illuminations—about the civilization which produced it or the civilization which produced the industry which produced it, the beauty of cracked and twisted metal, the interplay of violent accident and nature as corrosion and industrial design, or sociological reflections on the love of speed, death in violence, planned obsolescence and the destroying industry. The spectator shares the world of the artist and of the art object—that is, the given everyday world of an industrial urban society—and he can articulate new insights gained when full, long attention is focused on any one of its details presented in a pop art work. This might be like a sort of aesthetic sociology. In a wider context such art might be judged as a social phenomenon—What are its environmental and social causes? Does it merely reflect them or embody them or comment on them? If the last, what does it say? Where did it come from and where is it going? Is it worth going there? Such questions can be pertinently asked about it by the reflective observer and may illuminate more than that section of the world isolated in a museum. Or the critic may describe the new attitude towards the world or the new way of being in the world when art and life become continuous, when useful objects are isolated from their use and the everyday world in the artist’s studio gets attached literally to his canvas. The situation in which one can no longer tell whether a given object is a work of art or a used-up useful object is absurd. As the ultimate absurdity is inclined to do, it leads to a sort of science fiction state of utterly detached observation of an environment meant to be used. Like an archaeologist from another planet, one can look at the paraphernalia of life without involvements in its functions. One can thus start to look at everything independently of its use and context in a detached aesthetic frame of mind. The extreme stage of this state of mind would be paralysis in pure stunned contemplation of all sur­rounding objects and industrial products abstracted from their proper purposes and use. This was beautifully exemplified in the film The Red Desert, but in the film mental paralysis or dissociation was taken as cause rather than as effect of aesthetic contemplation of the industrial landscape.

But must the aesthetic observer or critic be thus limited to describing and reflecting on what is in the gallery or can he also judge whether it ought to be there? Once the artist has taken over the critic’s essential function of aesthetic judgment, how can the critic take it back again? Suppose the critic or spectator were to draw the line sharply and say: ‘This washbasin is not a work of art, it is a washbasin.’ In the present situation this might seem like usurping authority, might somehow turn him into an unlicensed artist. But then who does issue artists’ licenses? The whole question of the source of authority becomes problematical once the work of art is more or less defined by having been selected by an artist rather than the artist being distinguished through the quality of the work of art he has created. Indeed, this is a circular definition and leads to the internal contradiction from which the movement at present seems to be dying out. For if all the objects in ordinary life are essentially worthy of aesthetic contemplation, then there is really no need for artists to select them nor for museums to isolate them. One is surrounded by relatively inexpensive objects of art in the kitchen, and everybody can be his own artist and any place a museum.

In fact, following this dialectical path with admirable logic, the move­ment has degenerated literally into an artistic supermarket where one can buy for a hundred dollars or so tins of soup, etc., or replicas of them, signed by artists. But it has had the effect of changing the way of looking and the attitude involved in looking at the industrial environment and turning much that was irritating and hideous but fairly inescapable into something which can be enjoyed with amused detachment as Pop Art.

The other tendency of contemporary art goes in the direction opposite to that of selecting the given as creation. It moves towards creation out of no given or the minimum possible given. The artist creates not only his own paintings but also his own world and the laws by which it operates, its own intrinsic aim and even himself, out of the act of painting. He simultaneously creates and destroys paintings, the pos­sibility of painting, and himself. This painting is called Abstract Expres­sionism and was illuminatingly named by the American critic Harold Rosenberg ‘Action Painting’. ‘At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyse or express an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. Such painting might be likened to the exploration of a land that does not yet exist—which comes into being by being explored or more abstractly to the series of real numbers in which new operations create new kinds of numbers. For instance the mathematician who decided that it was a permissible operation to subtract a larger number from a smaller number thereby created nega­tive numbers and all their possibilities. Jackson Pollock who decided (by doing it, not by thinking it) that it was possible to paint a picture with his own bodily movements and paint which left a trace of them, created a new field of possibilities in painting.

This sort of painting also generates its own group of paradoxes. (Perhaps all movements in painting contain their own intrinsic paradoxes from which they eventually die or are transformed, and a dialectical history of painting might be written. But it is a characteristic of con­temporary art that it rushes to its own extremes, so the intrinsic para­doxes become more rapidly and vividly evident.) For the critic the para­dox is: if painting is essentially an action without any extrinsic goals, then how can the resulting painting be judged as an aesthetic object? A consistent critic of this conviction could only logically distinguish between real actions and unreal actions (what would they be?) or pretended real actions—those whose aim was really thought out before­hand but slyly concealed. As with Pop Art, the possibility of making a clear distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ paintings tends here to get lost in metaphysically arguable distinctions between real action and pseudo-action, new or not new, moral good and bad. Thus it is that Rosenberg, considering such painting as essentially actions or segments of life, tends to judge them almost morally. I quote Rosenberg again: ‘With traditional aesthetic references discarded as irrelevant, what gives the canvas its meaning is not psychological data but role, the way the artist organizes his emotional and intellectual energy as if he were in a living situation.—The test of any of the new paintings is its seriousness —and the test of its seriousness is the degree to which the act on the canvas is an extension of the artist’s total effort to make over his ex­perience—Action Painting has extracted the element of decision inherent in all art in that the work is not finished at its beginning but has to be carried forward by an accumulation of ‘right’ gestures. In a word, Action Painting is the abstraction of the moral element in art; its mark is moral tension in detachment from moral or aesthetic certainties; and it judges itself morally in declaring that picture to be worthless which is not the incorporation of a genuine struggle.’ But these are not the criteria usually given or accepted. His real criterion of the excellence of a painting is whether doing the painting has transformed the artist— the effect of the act of painting on the artist. According to such a criterion one ought to be able to find traces of the painting’s transforming power in the personality of the artist. But suppose that you meet the artist afterwards and find that he isn’t transformed. Would you judge the paintings by the personality of the artist or because of the qualities of the paintings themselves would you say that the artist must have under­gone some inner transformation whether it is noticeable or not—that in life he only exhibits his superficial mask or external concerns? The first alternative seems excessively superficial, but the second seems to drain the assertion of all empirical content. Paintings and painter define each other in a way that becomes circular. One would want to say not that the value of the paintings could be found in the quality of the artist’s life, but rather the opposite. The paintings are what one actually sees. So it is really the moral quality of the objects—of the paintings as given objects—which one is trying to find and judge. And at the same time it is the more or less aesthetic qualities of the artist’s life that are relevant and illuminating. Thus considering paintings as essentially actions has the effect of reversing the activities of ethics and aesthetics or at least dissolving the boundaries between them. In this way ethical terms, in fact ethical ‘good’, become applicable to objects of art and aesthetic terms, aesthetic ‘good’, become applicable to the life of the artist. The question ‘Can a bad man paint a good picture?’ embodies this new and more intimate relation between life and art and between ethical and aesthetic good. In this context it would seem that one must deny the logical possibility of a bad man painting a good picture. For if he could paint a good picture, then he must in some interior way—not necessarily in his relations to society or to non-artists—be a good man. This might suggest a glimpse of an aesthetically modified conception of a good man, and of an ethically modified conception of a good painting. They define each other in a way that is more illuminating than a simple circular definition—it might be called a spiral definition.

For the artist at work the corresponding paradox is a concrete prob­lem. How do you know whether you have succeeded when you don’t know what you have set out to do? How do you know when an action that has no predetermined end and purpose is finished? Confronted by something really new—the result of his own action—the artist may well ask himself ‘Is that what I wanted to do?’ Perhaps the only answer here is ‘It must be because I have done it.’ For the working artist the only kind of resolution he can find between the demands of ultimate freedom and ultimate precision is complete acceptance of what he has done. Paintings of this kind go in series, developing, affirming ‘This is what I wanted to do’, finding piece by piece precisely what it is he wanted to do, and learning how to do it. They are a kind of self-exploration. The unspoken unstatable intrinsic ‘intention’ of an act, which is its motive force, can only become apparent in a series carrying on the act. If the artist could say what his intention was apart from the act, then he could fulfil it in one act but it wouldn’t be a genuine exploratory act. But once the artist has understood it, mastered it and is able to do it, then he logically and psychologically ceases to be able to do it. Then doing it ceases to be an act of discovering by exemplifying new laws, but a production according to them. Within the framework of this art production is the opposite of creativity. Once one already knows the terrain exploration turns into leading safaris. The act becomes a making, and the artist becomes a craftsman. Psychologically this is the problem and danger of becoming uncreative by repeating oneself. So there is the paradox logically speaking or the very delicate balance psychologically speaking between repeating a similar action frequently enough to define and affirm what one wants to do and repeating it too often once one knows what one wants to do so that it becomes production instead of discovery.

Such painting is ultimately tragic because it lives by consuming its own possibilities. The artist must always be working on the verge of the impossible. One can see this in the work itself—it has a quality of tragic intensity and involvement, as opposed to the ‘coolness’ and comic detachment of Pop Art.

This paper has been a sketch of the limits of the impossible. Since most contemporary avant-garde art exists in this region, near or at the limit of the impossible, it is filled with paradoxes, which are sometimes destructive, sometimes animating, sometimes both at the same time. Indeed it is probably in the latter way, as simultaneously self-destructive and life-giving that the paradoxes within contemporary art function to keep it perpetually new.

Such paradoxes within the processes of contemporary visual art itself propagate more paradoxes in the relation of the judging spectator to the work of art and in his traditional activity of judging ‘This is a good or a bad work of art’. Indeed, they obliterate or render obsolete this detached independent-spectator-judging-independent-objcct attitude and introduce new, more intimate relations between aesthetic observer and work of art, which relations themselves are filled with paradoxes. Such paradoxes turn the traditional relationships inside out. Thus in the case of Pop Art the observer now assumes part of the active role of making the object into an object of art, and the artist undertakes a more connoisseur-like role of selecting objects for aesthetic contemplation. But if anything can be an object of artistic contemplation, then why does one need to have artists to select some things rather than others or museums to isolate them? Or in the case of action painting, if the paint­ing is to be judged as an action—a segment of life, an action which transforms its doer—then the moral or spiritual state of the artist rather than the physical state of the picture becomes in a way the ultimate criterion. Then the meaning of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as aesthetic terms are altered and shifted into another category, that of ethical good and bad, and aesthetics is transferred into a kind of ethics.