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Monday, June 9, 2003

Kamhi: I Must Correct The Sorely Mistaken Hughey

By Michelle Kamhi

I had hoped to leave behind the debate with Kirk Hughey regarding the value of abstract art. That he resorts once more to ad hominem is a sure sign of the poverty of his case. I will therefore not bother to respond to his personal attacks. But I cannot refrain from correcting the sorely mistaken account he offers of the relationship between abstract art and totalitarian ideologies.

Mr. Hughey claims that "Abstraction speaks to the personal; the free, imaginative, inventive human mind." In fact, however, the very invention of abstract (nonobjective) art was motivated by so unremittingly collectivist a view of the world that political totalitarianism seems but a pale imitation.

As Louis Torres and I document in What Art Is, the originators of abstract art were profoundly collectivist in their outlook, explicitly aspiring to the eventual submersion of the "individual" in the "universal," in art as well as in society and politics. Proponents of the "new art" deprecated the individual as the dominating force in the old world order, which they insisted mankind must move beyond. According to the 1918 manifesto of De Stijl (the influential modernist journal that Mondrian co-founded), for example, "the struggle between individual and universal" had been evident in the First World War, and "contemporary artists throughout the world [had] united in a world war against the dominance of the individual . . . to create international unity in Life, Art, and Culture."

In art, attainment of the universal meant escaping from the "circle of things," as Malevich put it. In direct opposition to the essence of what art had always been, Mondrian advised that artists must avoid the danger of "express[ing] something ‘particular,' therefore human." Both the new art and the new life he envisaged would require "freeing ourselves from the personal, from the individual."

"[W]hat we understand by ‘life,'" he maintained, "is not the subjective life of the individual but the manifest social life of at least a group." As for the personal "hand of the artist," formerly deemed "all-important," it was, for him, merely an aspect of the old art which "derives from an individualistic orientation . . . no longer important for the more universal conception of the future." Kandinsky was similarly critical of those who value "the personality, individuality, and temperament of the artist." (Sources for all the foregoing quotations are provided in What Art Is.)

One of the great ironies of abstract art is that the collectivist worldview that prompted its invention is now largely obscured by the myth (favored by Mr. Hughey and others) that abstract work serves as a bastion of individual expression.

Michelle Kamhi

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