Non-Objective is Non-Art

by Andrew Layman

What is Art? Throughout history, men have needed to crystalize their fundamental views of the world into perceptual form. The Mesopotamians made images of strange gods. The Greeks made statues, paintings, and plays about immortal gods directing the fates of men, and also of sports, sex and other worldly pleasures. Christians illustrated reality as split into two planes, the world in which we live (illusory, symbolic, malevolent and ultimately unimportant) and another, barely-glimpsed, superior realm, enterable by Divine grace. In the Renaissance, when the world-view changed to emphasize a universe open to rational understanding, art changed to express solid objects that look like the world of sensory experience, and it came to celebrate the unit of rationality: the individual man. As material progress grew more abundant and valued, art evolved to celebrate worldly pleasures such as food and physical beauty. When the leading intellectuals of the 18th century asserted that the physical world is ultimately an intangible whirl of sensory bombardment, the Impressionist school rose.

Regardless of whether the artist's world view is correct or not, it is a simple fact that throughout history men have produced images that essentialize and concretize their view of reality. We denote such images by the concept "art." Art is stylized recreation of those facts about reality that the artist considers fundamentally important.

Paintings are images of concretes, never directly representations of abstractions, or emotional or mental states. The artist's abstract theme, evaluations, and emotions are conveyed by means of particular objects and their relationships, as well as by the artist's style of rendering them.

In the 20th century, the external world was abandoned as subjectivist philosophy took over. The term "non-objective" was invented to denote paintings that have no object, that are not paintings of anything. The painters put paint on canvas, and placed the canvasses into frames, and hung the frames in museums--in short, they copied many of the superficial aspects of art--but did not claim to be recreating anything about this world or any world. By their own strident admission, external reality is gone from their works. They are not expressions of anything universally important, they are not statements of anything about the world, they are not images of anything objective.

Since the essence of "art" is recreation of some fundamentally, universally important object, "non-objective" paintings differ from art in every essential way. They are not art.

The Greek view of the Cosmos, an orderly, lawful realm ruled by Olympian gods, a proper setting for reason and human happiness, expressed in this Aphrodite, by Praxiteles

Detail of Hell, from an early Christian Painting, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

The Augustinian Christian view of the world as a semi-real, demon-filled transitory phase ruled by an incomprehensible and demanding God is shown in this detail of Hell, from an early Christian painting

The Renaissance brought a renewed valuing of individuality, rationality and pride, illustrated in this self-portrait by Sodoma, a detail of a larger, religious painting into which the artist has inserted himself. Note also the background drawing in perspective.

In The Art of Painting, Vermeer, with his luminous colors, perspective, and ingenious composition renders a world in which man's senses and mind operate efficaciously, complementing the Enlightenment view of Reason as the highest power of man..

The philosopher David Hume described the universe as a shifting flux of sensory impressions, with no solid objects, no durability, no law of Identity, no causality. Monet, in his 1908 painting Le Grand Canal, illustrates such a world. Reality, and art, are beginning to disappear . . .

A Non-Objective painting by Mark Rothko, White and Greens in Blue.

Concepts are Objective

I've received many comments responding to the above essay. In one, Mike Penner agreed that concepts represent collections of entities, but suggested that the collection could be formed arbitrarily or subjectively:

Now, will you recognize the objective existence of a concept consisting of those entities which belong to art + {all the works of the Abstract Expressionists}? If so, let's link that concept with the word "bart". Now we have two words linked to different concepts, and there can be no confusion between them.
Now, I expect someone to argue that the concept referred to as "art" (t.c.r.t.a.a.? ;) has a lot more "essential integrity" (the objects in the category share "more" "essence") than the concept referred to as "bart". I can't comment on this until I know how to evaluate "intensity of essence".

Mike is correct to focus on the issue of "essence," asking, in effect, what an "essence" is and whether there is an essential similarity among the objects he wants to collect into a "bart" group. Historically, this has been a crucial philosophical question. I'll give my answer (due to Ayn Rand):

The essence of something (in a given context) is that characteristic which causes (makes possible, necessitates) all the other, or the most other, characteristics. For example, consider that men have brains, two legs and no feathers. Then consider all the things that men do: build houses, write poetry, enact laws, watch football, etc. How many of these are a consequence of brains? Two legs? No feathers? Clearly, brains are the necessitating factor. Brains are essential. Legs and no feathers aren't.

To borrow an old philosophy joke, if someone tried to form a concept "pc-man" defined as "man, plus all other things with two legs and no feathers" there would be a few problems. These arise because although the other things are somewhat similar to men, they are not essentially similar.

What would the problems be? Well, we see that we have grouped together men and plucked chickens. Suppose we set out to study pc-men. What can we learn about plucked chickens that applies to men, or visa versa? Not much. Suppose we know something about plucked chickens. Does it tell us anything significant about men? No. The grouping is cognitively useless. In order to make any sense of our thinking, we find we need to divide pc-men into two categories, men and plucked chickens, and throw away the pc-man grouping entirely.

How does this apply to art? We have a concept art which encompasses traditional painting and sculpture. These have several characteristics in common: They are selective images of reality, expressing the artist's ideas. They are made from paint, canvas, and/or stone, etc. They discussed by critics. Which is essential? That they are selective images of reality, expressing the artist's ideas. (Critics discussed them because they were selective recreations of reality, not the other way around.)

Now, suppose we try to form a concept "bart" by grouping together art plus all other things made from paint, canvas or stone, and discussed by critics. We have the same problem as the men and plucked chickens: What they have in common is not essential. What we learn about art doesn't generally apply to the other things, and visa versa. If we know something about the other things, it doesn't tell us much about art.

For example, what can I learn from a Rothko canvas that is useful for understanding a Raphael?

There are a few characteristics in common, such as that both are hung in museums and discussed by critics. This does tell us something about contemporary museums and critics, but it doesn't say much about the art or the other things, per se.

People may be motivated to group art and the other things together, but they are not justified.

The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand.
The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe.