“There is only one way to see things, until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes”
René Magritte – La trahison des images/ Ceci n’est pas une pipe, 1928-1929. Oil on canvas, 25 in × 37 in (635 mm × 939.8 mm) (Source)
There are multiple definitions of modern art. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call here “modern art” the paintings that are very different (in some way abstract or nonfigurative) from what a layman would call traditional/ figurative/ classic art (being aware that this comprises currents that are vastly divergent in expression and ideology).
René Magritte’s La trahison des images/ The treachery of images (also known as Ceci n’est pas une pipe/ This is not a pipe) wasn’t the first modern painting, or the most important one, but in my opinion, it captured the best the essence of modern art.
The title “This is not a pipe” is not ironic (as in it’s obviously a pipe), but factual. It is a commentary on the nature of art (traditional and modern). It is not a pipe; it is a representation of a pipe. It tells us that every image we see in figurative, “realistic” art is not the “real” thing; it is the artist’s representation of that thing. Figurative, traditional art does not represent “reality,” it represents the artist’s version of reality, of how that artist sees the reality. Thus, art is not a representation of reality, but of the artist’s mind, imagination, this explaining and justifying modern nonfigurative art. Modern artists try, in a way, to lift the veil over our eyes, to make us see “the strings”, to make us see that art is an illusion; they mean to draw attention to the illusory nature of art, in general, and figurative art in particular.
“But how do you look at such a painting? How do you interpret it,” one might ask. But how do we look at a “traditional” painting? I would ask in return. Do we appreciate its “realism”? Its attention to details? What about the paintings with a religious or mythological subject? How can we appreciate their realism, when we don’t know how angels or gods look? Is it about the feelings they provoke in us? What causes these feelings? Is it the “real” nature of the painting? Is it the “reality” that makes us have these feelings that we can’t have when we look at a nonfigurative painting?
Well, let’s have a look at a painting that is completely abstract.
Ad Reinhardt – Abstract Painting No. 5, 1962. Oil on canvas, 60 in x 60 in (152.5 mm x 152.5 mm) © Tate (Source)
The American painter Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967) wanted to create art that would be an experience for the viewer. He believed that art should serve only its own purpose, without any interference from the outside world, or from the artist himself – his ego, and even his marks on the painting. Heavily inspired by Eastern philosophy, Reinhardt thought that “The one standard in art is oneness and fineness, rightness and purity, abstractness and evanescence. The one thing to say about art is its breathlessness, lifelessness, deathlessness, contentlessness, formlessness, spacelessness, and timelessness. This is always the end of art”. In his view, he finally achieved that in his “Black Paintings” series (named so because of the apparent predominant color), on which he focused in the last ten years of his life. The painting presented here is part of that series, and what can be said about it may be representative for all of the “Black Paintings,” as the modus operandi and the ideas behind them are the same. I chose this one as an example because I feel it is emblematic for abstract painting in general – it needs meditation for a slow revelation of its intrinsic qualities.
In his “Black Paintings,” Reinhardt used primary colors and black only. He would apply a single color in the four corners of the canvas, a second color in the middle of the top and the middle of the bottom, and a third color across the center – which one was which changed from one painting to another. What is striking about these paintings is their matte quality, their almost complete lack of gloss. He achieved that by taking the binder out of the paint. Reinhardt would make the colors so dark that on first look they would appear black. After putting a little amount of a primary color in a jar, he would add about fifteen times that quantity of black, then filling the jar with solvent. He would dissolve the paint, after that pouring out the leftover solvent and binder, leaving only the pure pigment, containing very little binder and much solvent. He would repeat this procedure about three times until he got a really matte color.
Reinhardt originally intended for his art to be seen in person, and not intermediated by photography or video. He wanted the viewers to experience firsthand a gradual revelation, an epiphany, if one wishes, as their eyes get gradually accustomed to the darkness and start seeing, in this case, the blueish undertones forming a cross in the middle of the painting. I, for one, think there is, indeed, a sense of satisfaction, a Zen-like state of mind that one can reach when one focuses only on this painting and this one alone, cutting out every other distraction (like phone, internet, or whatever). It is like one becomes a part of that painting, and almost understands what Reinhardt meant when he wrote about the absolute purity of art.
Many people say “I can do this myself” in regards to this kind of art, but as I hope I’ve shown, this painting took great skill to create, with deep thought behind it. If we could have done that work of art, we would have. Art is not just about technique (although you do need plenty of that), it’s about ideas – we never thought about that work of art, only that artist has, and that’s what makes it unique (on a side note, if you want to take a look at other modern artistic expressions, see, for example, John Cage’s music piece, 4’33”, or Frank O’Hara’s poem, Why I Am Not a Painter).
That being said, I do think there’s a lot of pretentiousness nowadays in regards to modern art. When I’m looking at certain abstract paintings and read various art critics “commenting” them, I am reminded of Daniel Clowes’ story Art School Confidential, where he recounts his experiences as an art student : “…talent really isn’t the issue… Far more important is the gift of gab! … If you go to art school for god’s sake make the most of it… Seldom if ever again in life will you be afforded the chance to scrutinize such an array of losers in an environment that actually encourages their most pretentious inclinations!”
Yes, in some cases, art is now more about the explanation of the work, than the work itself. I do think the work of art should speak for itself, and you shouldn’t have to know anything or read a manifesto or a PhD thesis to understand it. Art is subjective. It is about feeling. What matters is how a work of art makes you feel, if it does. However, even if you can’t really teach someone how to feel, I also think that you can explain what is going on behind a painting, or in an artist’s mind and maybe that person will look at that painting differently. (A desire for) knowledge combined with empathy leads to understanding and less prejudice.
To me, modern art embodies pure imagination, an absolute freedom from the constraints of reality, freedom to express the inexpressible, to explore the deepest parts of your soul and try to find some peace of mind, some kind of truth, some kind of meaning, letting go of the rational self. It is a search for deepness through simplicity; the search for more through less; the search of some deeper truth, some “real” truth. Indeed, this is not a pipe. It is so much more.
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 Art-as-Art Dogma (1964) part II (as quoted in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrahams Publishers, New York 1990, p. 158)
 in Eightball no. 7, 1991, p. 17