issue 11 :: July 2005

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ESSAY: And You Will Know Them By the Trail
of the Dumb: a Defense of Abstract Art

by Josh Ronsen
A member of the Austin rock band And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead has written an essay attacking abstract and modern art. You may find the essay here. Because the author of the article was not listed on the band’s webpage where I originally read it, I refer to the actual author as Dead, although now the author is listed as Conrad Keely.
Dead’s essay reads like it has been cribbed from every remedial attack on Modern Art since the 1913 Armory Show. Again we read the same tired accusations of “anyone can do it,” and suffer charges of elitism since the common man doesn’t appreciate it. To prove his point, Dead shows a number of abstract paintings and old-time classics to a four-year old girl. The results are astonishing: the girl does not like the modern art, but rather likes the “pretty” pictures. Thus it is case closed for the product of an Evergreen State College education (I’m a University of Chicago man myself; just paid off my student loans). Let’s tear down the Rothko Chapel and put up some pony paintings (c.f.
Now a person of sharper intelligence--and I will suffer the charge of elitism by saying there aren’t many smart people out there--may question the idea of a four year old girl deciding anything about anything. Her primary concern at this point in life is when she can start wearing makeup (perhaps the most degenerate form of painting in Western culture). If we conduct Dead’s “experiment” with the culinary arts, we may find that the four year old girl greatly prefers Twinkies and Lucky Charms to vegetables and multi-grain bread. If left unchecked, this girl would eat nothing but sweets until all her teeth become rotted and her brain infected with trillions of streptococcus mutans bacteria producing destructive behavioral patterns such as listening to the new Liz Phair record.
The same thing happens with art. If left unchecked, this girl will probably spend her entire life gazing at pretty pictures and not having to think about them. “This picture is pretty, it is a classic, can I buy it on a tote bag?” she may find herself asking one day at the poster/frame shop in the mall. I want a better future for our kids.
In his 1957 essay “the Creative Act,” Marcel Duchamp, perhaps the greatest modern artist, or at least one of the most original and daring, describes art as a three part process involving the artist, the work of art itself and thirdly, and perhaps most important, the viewer, who must engage the art work to complete it. In earlier times (in Western Civilization), art was a way of reinforcing rigid social and religious structures. In the Renaissance, the average person had no access to art unless seen in church: there were no museums, no public libraries. Art was a tool of the wealthy as another way to display their obscene wealth and social standing. This is the “very specific function” that Dead is looking for in art. This art, mostly pretty pictures, does not directly engage the viewer intellectually. Duchamp called this art--which is so prevalent in society that only it is defined as Art--retinal art; art that plays with the eye but goes little deeper. Duchamp devoted his life to fighting the pull and attraction of this powerful force, and strove to create that which would instead play on the mind. When writing “visual art is about ways of seeing,” Dead shows his allegiance to this simpler, easier way of life.
The pile of coal which fuels Dead’s essay perfectly encapsulates his anti-intellectual bias. Dead only sees a pile of coal and passes on to us a simple surface description. By not providing the title of the piece or the artist, we cannot enter into a discussion about its merits. Perhaps it was a terrible piece, a cheap Richard Long knock off. Perhaps Dead stumbled upon the loading dock and found an actual pile of coal awaiting transfer to the furnace (much like the old joke about the uncovered electrical wall socket in the art gallery: it provokes vigorous debate until the janitor arrives and re-attaches the cover). Perhaps it was a masterpiece by Robert Smithon. Dead effectively shuts down dialogue and debate before it can begin. Who can argue with “a pile of coal?” Who could argue if I reduce the Mona Lisa to “colored pigments on wood” or a piece of music to “patterns of air pressure?” Dead sees, but he does not think.
Dead’s historical argument doesn’t hold any water, which is no surprise. The art survey course I assume he took at Evergreen State College (“studying art on a theoretical level?”) didn’t and couldn’t expose him to the true basis of representational painting. Dead claims “even the first paintings done on caves were not abstract or exercises in self-indulgence, but beautifully, sometimes sublimely realistic representations.” This smacks of an art survey course at someplace like Evergreen State College where teachers drunk on Enlightenment fallacies like Rousseau’s "all men are born free" argue the grace and purity of primitive man. Their basic argument is that the cave painters, being so in tune with nature and free from Evil Society, create paintings so “beautiful” that they still speak to us thousands of years later. Lucy Lippard, in her book “Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory,” writes of those “who glorify nature and the distant past, using them as reactionary propaganda to send people back to their proper places, their proper classes, their proper gender roles.” [pg.9] These art survey teachers, and I assume Dead as well, are angry that their pretty pony paintings lost out to an abstract concept piece at the Evergreen State College Art Fair. Lippard later describes certain ancient wall carvings as “randomly patterned with [concentric circles, seemingly very abstract], some with comet-like trails. Such marks are particularly mysterious since they are found all over the world.” This shows that primitive artists did make abstract, random works and were not totally involved with representational art.
Dead doesn’t understand the cave painters (or, for that matter, caves: one paints IN caves, ON cave walls; one does not paint “on caves.”). What are the cave paintings really about? I will tell you. Lacking silverware, because they didn’t have society to tell them to use a fork, primitive man ripped apart their prey with their hands. Their hands became bloody and, not being complete savages, they had a desire to wipe off the blood. Where did they do this? On the walls of their caves. That is right, these first paintings, so described in public by Dead as “beautiful” and “sublimely realistic” were nothing but bloody hand turkeys, the same hand turkeys that are used even today to indoctrinate small children (like Dead’s young friend) into representational painting and the allure of “pretty” pictures. All of what Dead considers to be Art can be traced back to this most simple and insidious form of art, the hand turkey.
The line is clear. Art and Life offer a wide range of experiences, ideas and beauties, some not obvious, taking time and effort to discover. To devalue something because it is not easily swallowed by the “uneducated” (Dead’s word) masses is stupidity piled upon ignorance. Ask the average Texas country bumpkin what he thinks about Indian cuisine or music. He’s not going to sit for a minute of sitar playing. That doesn’t make it any less worthwhile. The same goes for abstract art. Abstract art is needed, desperately needed because it can compell the mind to think, to experience something new, to find the poetry within life. As Rabbi Abraham Itshaq Kook wrote: “May misfortune fall on he who wants to remove the poetic aspect of life, he loses the very savor of this life and all its truth.”

>>Josh Ronsen is publisher of Monk Mink Pink Punk. He is a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, clarinet, electronics, computer, piano, cello) in Austin, Texas and his sound work appears on over two dozen records. He also publishes the Austinnitus electronic newsletter.>>


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Josh Ronsen
joshronsen (ate) yahoo (dote) com
2001 Brentwood
Austin, Texas 78757 USA