Thursday, 7 July 2011

Jonathan Jones puts nail on head

"Are we a nation of abstract art snobs?
There's strength and truth to be found in abstract expressionism – British sceptics need to get over their puritanical hauteur.
Britain has never "got" abstract art. Even articles that appeared this week marking the death of Cy Twombly attracted comments of the "my child could do that" variety. It is tempting to dismiss these attacks as philistine, but that would be to ignore an eminently respectable and artistically sophisticated British tradition of disdain for abstract painting."
The full article can be read on the Guardian website but he finishes with " This scepticism must, in the end, go back to the Reformation and its fear of graven images. Somewhere in your psyche, abstraction-haters, when you look at Twombly's lush colours you see a medieval stained-glass window: and the puritan in you wants to smash it.".


  1. I get the feeling the English may have a view of themselves that disdains any force considered new, ie without a pedigree, their nationhood so firmly reliant on it..unless said force is meekly cooperative. The guilt inherent in such a stance obliges the English to trek out into the farthest reaches of the planet, at some discomfort, and try, as they might, to reconcile the gulf.

  2. We all have our natures to contend with! In a forthcoming interview for Turps Banana Sean Scully makes the observation that the British have a dichotomy between conservation and rebellion and this is what has prevented fascism and dictators taking hold in the UK. I think we have a good track record of individuals that reveal the new but as a tribe our cynical caution prevents it from being adopted too readily. English abstraction has been influential and abstraction has surely been around long enough now to be considered to have a pedigree....if it is pedigree that is required. I think that like singing all can have a go but to do it well in public is harder than one might initially believe.

  3. A beautiful response, Monk. England would never have got where it has without an underlying tendency to be honest/true.
    You're correct in emphasising that abstraction appears simpler than it is. The true abstractionists need to be once removed or else they risk being uniformly material, ie: recognisable, predictable.
    And I like what you say about the dichotomy between conservatism and rebellion...they are natural allies, despite the apparent opposition some would consider irreconcilable.

  4. I was interested in that 'fear of graven images' notion. Surely he's got the nail the wrong way round. Its the medieval rather than puritanical that gets offended by abstraction. What the medieval wants is an image, an icon, and this is lacking in abstraction. It's not so much the fear of graven images as the desire for them that leads to abstraction hatred.

  5. I agree Gardener for me they are natural allies as they exist within me and inform my work. I also respond to work that in some way openly reflects this conversation either in process, material, context, composition etc etc.

    I think you are right Andy with regard to the figure, the use and centrality of which was informed by a perception of man and a relationship with God and nature. However I think Jonathan was connecting the desire of the puritans to clamp down on the freedom with definitions of what is and isn't allowed. However I think our understanding of nature and god has changed from such certainties which is one of the reasons I feel abstraction is so pertinent.

  6. But surely if it is a fear of "graven images" that is the root of sneers at abstraction,in
    then figuration would not reign supreme, but alas it does.
    Love getting your Abstraction Blog.
    Thank you
    Posted on behalf of
    C. Morey de Morand

  7. Collette I think you are correct and Mr Jones confused the sceptical with the puritanical response and in doing so 'put the nail on the head' , turning it upside down rather than 'hitting it on the head' as you have. I didn't want to detract too much from his general observation that abstraction is not more readily accepted. The version that you describe puts abstractionists in the puritanical position and has associations that I don't like. is already perceived and has been accused by some purveyors of gothic, figurative fantastical imagery as being like a cult religion, purely because of our passion and their lack of understanding which excludes them and to that end they actively resist abstract arts promotion. I do understand that through their eyes this labelling fits but surely the irony is evident.

    Thank you for your comment and your appreciation.

  8. We didn't support our abstract painters in Cornwall and championed 'kitchen sink' artists, we haven't been collecting 'modern art' in the 20th C, which is why the Tate collection is so poor, we have a 'literary' understanding of painting, we are 'academicizing' fine art in our educational institutions, we need to re-think what are problem with abstraction really is...