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Friday, March 7, 2003

On Meaning And Art


By Michelle Kamhi

Once more unto the breach with Kirk Hughey on the issue of abstract art. . . .

In his letter of February 24, Mr. Hughey compares abstract artistsí persistent self-doubt (the persistence can be documented, though Mr. Hughey denies it) to Einsteinís expression of uncertainty about his discoveries in theoretical physics. I agree that doubt alone is not proof of error, yet I discern a very important difference between Einsteinís scientific breakthroughs and the claims made for abstract art. The former eventually gained objective substantiation, the latter have never done so.

Let me also respond to the quite reasonable questions Mr. Hughey has raised about the evidence I cited. First, the individuals I referred to in David Halleís study (Inside Culture) - who liked abstract art well enough to hang it in their homes, yet tended to refer to it in decorative terms- were not ignoramuses or philistines. They were educated, sophisticated urbanites quite conversant with the arts and the artworld.

As for Semir Zekiís brain-imaging studies, they are summarized in considerable detail in his book "Inner Vision". Mr. Hughey implies that a bias against abstract art may have influenced both the design of the studies and the interpretation of their results. On the contrary, Mr. Zeki expresses admiration for abstract art and artists, and even offers a favorable spin on his findings, concluding that knowledge about the neurology of perception "somehow increases oneís admiration for what abstract artists, and in particular Mondrian, were trying to do and the extent of their achievement, at least in neurological terms. . . . In a sense, it is a neurological vindication of the efforts of Mondrian and others to put on canvas the constant elements of all forms and colours. . . . It is yet more evidence to support [my] view that artists are unknowingly exploiting the organisation of the brain." ["Inner Vision", pp. 200-204]

Here, of course, Mr. Zeki ignores both the deeper metaphysical meanings Mondrian intended to convey through his work and the fact that art has always dealt with more complex contents of consciousness than the "constant elements of all forms and colours." On the latter point, which is fundamental, Mr. Hughey and I would seem to agree - to judge from his recent response to Arthur Danto and the statements on his own website 

Where we disagree is whether abstract art can intelligibly embody such complex meaning. Mr. Hughey ultimately appeals to the "subjectivity" of art. Of course, the response to art is inevitably influenced by individual differences of personality, character, and worldview. In a work of representational art, however, it is generally possible to point to objective features that can be understood as a reasonable basis for a particular response in a given individual. Abstract art is largely at a loss in that respect.

In claiming that, unlike the emotional response to works of abstract art, visions of angels and devils "are imagined external events that do not actually take place," Mr. Hughey is quite mistaken. The Salem witch trials, for example, attest to the ease with which much of an entire community could come to view certain of its own members as possessed by the devil. It also seems likely that some UFO "sightings" are not full-fledged hallucinations but are instead imaginative interpretations of actual perceptions (e.g., of unidentified patterns of light).

It is ironic that Mr. Hughey imputes signs of desperation to me in this debate. I rather think that they are to be found on his side. Why else would he resort, in the concluding sentence of his letter, to gratuitous innuendo regarding my views on current world events?

Michelle Kamhi


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