Contemporary, abstract art is either appreciated or mocked. Picture yourself in a reputable art gallery, surrounded by timeless, priceless High Renaissance paintings and Pre-Raphaelites; their composition, their techniques and the explicit narrative are utterly exquisite. Imagine your gaze transitioning upwards and landing upon the spectacular Rembrandt ‘The Night Watch”. Its immense, almost overwhelming size, occupies a whole wall- this is understandable considering that it took over a year to complete. Not even a novice could overlook the skill involved. The metal on the helmets of the soldiers glinting as though they are emerging from the canvas and the detail involved in illustrating the embroidered silk is faultlessly realistic. Teenagers to the elderly stand awe-struck beneath the canvas, drinking in the irreproachable detail and expertise. You move along and find yourself looking at stark white canvas splattered haphazardly with a web of brown paint. No content. Just paint. There is no focal point and the eye doesn’t know where to look. Stripped of an emotive and evocative narrative, the painting provides no more than the bare materials of an artist’s tools.
Children wander past the display, disinterested. The chaos of composition and myriad of colours at first catches their eye but when they note the abstract lack of figures, faces or flowers (what they were expecting for the aesthetic of their Instagram) they move on, into the Monet exhibition for more familiar turf.
We’ve all heard the phrase “that-could’ve-been-painted-by-a-7-year-old” tediously thrown around- perhaps we’ve even been guilty of saying it ourselves. And we’ve undoubtedly all seen the videos on Facebook, where a pair of misplaced glasses or a skateboard in a gallery are mistaken for profound art and receive undeserved attention from the visitors. We all laugh and joke about it – it’s funny. The 21st century hipster who thinks they know something about art and culture has fallen into the trap of the contemporary art industry. Are they obsessively taking photos of the £12.50 Specsavers frames lying neglected on the bleached lino floor because they like the look of them, (surely not?); or instead because contemporary art is “cool and unexpected and quirky” and given the gallery that they’re in, they’re probably an exhibit which is worth something.
Perhaps we have to ask ourselves whether we are the subject of long-running joke in the art industry. Sure, some abstract art is aesthetically pleasing and many would have no qualms having them hang on their bedroom wall. Take Kandinsky, Picasso or Warhol. Their reception from the general public as well as the art world is generally positive and non-controversial. Yes, they are abstract and their message nebulous, but they give the observer something “pretty” to look at; something which is more than a white-washed piece of material. Pollock is at the more extreme level of the spectrum of “abstract”. His work pushes the boundaries of what can actually constitute art. Is it not shameful of us to spend millions of pounds on one of his designs (a different shade of splattered paint this time) which at first glance represents nothing, whilst the paintings of truly talented and skilled artists fail to shift? Is it not bizarre that Damien Hurst can manage to sell a sheep suspended in formaldehyde for £3.3 million or a steel medicine cabinet which resembles one at home for £3.6 million? Knowing this, we have to ask ourselves whether we can ultimately blame these deceived gallery-going millennials. What’s the difference between abandoned high-street brand specs and a pot of Ibuprofen? Are these artists mocking and extorting us; taking advantage of the fact that many are prepared to spend unthinkable amounts to say they have “a Damien Hirst” even though the idea of having to sit face to face with a semi-decomposed mammal across the breakfast table is enough to put them off their cornflakes. Ok, these displays certainly have a price, but do they have value?
Art is a product of the society during which it is made; Rembrandt and Pollock were both relevant to their era.
In my opinion yes. I’ll admit, Hirst’s provocative work is somewhat more difficult to justify as with what he creates, he aims to shock and generate a reaction. Pollock however, shares many similarities with Rembrandt. With the latter there is a very explicit hierarchy between the painting and the viewer. His idealised scenes and narratives are very much superior to the observer. Pollock on the other hand wanted the observer to have a much more immersive experience; we can see this in his use of elephantine canvases so that when we stand in front of it our entire field of vision is consumed. Pollock truly wanted us to be emotionally affected by his work. Yes, it is mess, but it is intentional mess, unlike that of an “experimental toddler”.
Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Titian are respected and glorified for their skill in representing reality. Pollock however is criticised for effectively lacking in any skill. But rather than dismissively condemning Pollock’s doused canvases as you walk past them in a gallery, stand below the erratic and jumbled blur of colour. When given the opportunity, the painting reveals itself to be incredibly thought out and balanced and its composition is almost perfect. There is order within the disorder. I can’t sit here and deny that the dedication, time and skill was much more evident in Rembrandt’s but we can’t forget that Pollock was in fact an accomplished artist. His previous work displayed cubism, perspectives, figures and concepts- he could draw he just actively, intentionally chose not to.
Art is a product of the society during which it is made; Rembrandt and Pollock were both relevant to their era. Their stark difference in style owes to the fact that they are 300 years in separation. Just as Rembrandt painted battle scenes and accounting meetings, Pollock expressed feelings prevalent in society at the time, into his artwork. The splattering of paint expresses panic: the use of nuclear weapons, the Cold War, Communism and the inescapable fear deeply rooted in society in the fifties and sixties.
With Pollock, the concept is what is important, not the piece itself. They’re not of anything, they are of themselves. It is thought-provoking and unconventional. Perhaps people criticise abstract art such as his because when they look at a painting they want to explicitly shown what the meaning is. Anyone can stand in from of a Da Vinci and appreciate its visual beauty, albeit on a superficial level, without having to give it much thought. Abstract art requires the observer to do more than this- its message is frighteningly implicit but it’s there. It demands more from the gallery-goer; something that people are not aware of or maybe something that they are unprepared to do. So next time you stumble across a splattered canvas, don’t systematically switch on auto-pilot and head towards Van Gogh. Look beyond the dripping pigment and allow it to mean something, if you give it the chance.