One of our readers, Tasha, let us know about a great post she had written about abstract art. You can read the post here: http://tashamazing.blogspot.com/2010/02/abstract-art.html.
In the post Tasha talks about her "conversion" to abstract art and the still negative attitudes of many to the genre. Everyone has heard the refrain, "My kid could make that!" while visiting the Modern/Contemporary wing of their favorite museum. This brings about my question: Can/will abstraction ever be whole-heartedly accepted by the public? Will the average museum goer ever fall in love with Pollock the way that Greenberg won over the artistic establishment in the 1950's?
Perhaps I am a pessimist, but I tend to doubt it. As evidence I submit my favorite abstract work, El Lissitzky's Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.
A propaganda piece rallying the Communists (the red wedge) to aggression against the Capitalists (the white circle), this litho always made me laugh a little bit. WHY? Because it is so idealistic! With its accompanying title it is a remarkable effective image but I wonder if, without the labeling and without the explanatory title, if it would have been effective. Perhaps more so than many abstract pieces. The sharp RED (such a symbolic color) wedge does seem to do a great violence to the bloated, passive circle. But could it ever be as didactic as this:
Of course this is more mundane, less intellectual, but it exactly models appropriate behavior and is thus highly relatable. (I love propaganda posters, by the way. Visual Culture studies are fascinating! But that is a topic for another post.)
My point: the concept of making an abstract visual language which would communicate with the masses, the way the Soviet artists hoped to do, seems like a long shot. Unless, perhaps, the Russians are infinitely better at critical thinking than the American public, I can never foresee abstraction being as efficient a visual language as naturalism. It would seem this pessimism won out both in the USSR, who switched to a more traditional style (as seen above), and in the US, which favored more traditional imagery in later propaganda campaigns like those surrounding WWII (see http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/587915).
So, if abstraction failed as propaganda, can it succeed as art? Will visual literacy ever develop to the point that El Lizzitsky's experiment could really succeed?
P.S. Every other Friday I go teach art at a two-room schoolhouse in Vernon, UT (pop. 242-ish). Last week I filled manilla envelopes full of images of famous paintings and let the children choose the ones they wanted to talk about in front of the class. They picked almost all of the landscapes, animalia, and the abstract pieces, leaving the Renaissance and 19th C. history paintings and portraiture behind. Who would have guessed?