abstract

“The meaning of a word is its use in the language.”—Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, No. 43

A white, completely over-exposed picture. The artist, taking footage of various landscapes, had no idea that the camera he was using was broken before he started. Friedrich Meschede, in calling this Mark Luyten film the “perfect abstraction,” makes a classical error of reasoning: that abstraction means the obliteration of everything figurative and objective. But abstraction is not an artistic variant of nihilism. Abstraction above all describes a process—the term ought rather to be understood and used as a verb. Further, in this process, the relation between abstraction and the abstracted does not get lost. And something much more important: the relation remains comprehensible. Wittgenstein rightly recognizes that a value that stands for all and everything can only be meaningless. The over-exposed film could be the abstraction of everything, or equally, nothing: at this point it becomes arbitrary, and the term abstraction becomes inoperable as a characterization of the film, in the Wittgensteinian sense unusable—meaningless.

A black square on a white background. For a majority of people, Malevich’s Suprematist works, in particular the black square, are abstract paintings par excellence. But what Malevich was aspiring to was not abstraction, but the complete disengagement of art from nature: Malevich wanted to liquidate what was called “the objective” in art. In exactly the same way as, by accident, the above-mentioned film of artist Mark Luyten does. For the same reason, Malevich’s Suprematism is also no abstraction. Geometric figures, which are generally listed by art theory under the category of “geometric abstraction,” are actually concrete. The differentiation between abstract and concrete is here of the utmost importance. And also of historic importance: there were, time and again, artist movements that turned against the label “abstraction,” introducing other terms, such as “concrete art,” for their works (van Doesburg, Mondrian, Matisse et al.). Concrete art is self-referential, because it exclusively appertains to art’s being and becoming. The figures, geometries, are not the essence of what is represented, rather the essence of representing. At this point art becomes autonomous.

In the natural sciences, mathematics, and even sociology, abstraction is a systematic process, through the agency of which experiments and concepts can be framed, which in turn makes possible the comprehension of more complex processes and relations. Complexities are simplified or generalized in order to reduce an overabundance of detail. It is similar with language. Language is an abstraction of thought. Thoughts by themselves are too multi-layered to be uttered “unprocessed.” To be sure, language becomes deficient through this simplification, and can lead in the end to misunderstandings. Nevertheless, it enables communication by means of abstraction.

In this way, abstraction has a general function: to make comprehensible. This is not different in the realm of art. Abstract Expressionism, for example, entails a reduction of the portrayal of figures and objects for a particular reason. The focus of attention is directed to the subjective form or color-field, allowing the visualization of emotion, narrative, and other elements. This process does not however work with geometric forms. To abstract a car to a red square means to translate this object into another form, and thus to separate it from abstraction: abstraction means rather to distance, not to substitute or supersede.

For the eighth exhibition at Essays and Observations we have asked the artists Albrecht Schäfer, Jeremiah Day, Karolin Meunier, Lucy Powell, Mario Asef, and Øystein Aasan to demonstrate artistically their positions on abstraction. In addition, Dale Holmes has agreed to redact certain conjectures that we put together as part of the preparation for this exhibition, and also to contribute his own text on the topic. Dale Holmes is currently working on a PhD on abstraction. This exhibition forms the basis for an ongoing discussion on this theme. What do we today understand as abstraction? Is a photograph abstract, in that it isolates a moment in time? Is a found object abstract, in that it is extracted from its everyday context? How wide do we want to spread the range of the term abstraction? Or should we constrain this range, in order to make the term more accurate and less arbitrary?

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“Die Bedeutung eines Wortes ist sein Gebrauch in der Sprache.” – Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen Nr. 43

Ein weißes, vollkommen überbelichtetes Bild. Der Künstler ahnte bei der Aufnahme verschiedener Landschaften nicht, dass die Kamera zuvor ihren Geist aufgegeben hatte. Friedrich Meschede nennt diesen Film Mark Luytens die perfekte Abstraktion und begeht damit einen klassischen Denkfehler: Abstraktion als das Auslöschen alles Figürlichen und Gegenständlichen. Doch Abstraktion ist keine künstlerische Variante von Nihilismus. Abstraktion beschreibt in erster Linie einen Prozess – der Begriff sollte als Verb verstanden und auch gebraucht werden. Bei diesem Prozess aber geht die Beziehung zwischen der Abstraktion und dem Abstrahierten nicht verloren. Und was viel wichtiger ist: sie bleibt be-greifbar. Wittgenstein erkennt ganz richtig, dass ein Platzhalter für alles und jedes bedeutungslos ist. Der überbelichtete Film könnte die Abstraktion von allem sein, oder eben von nichts; an diesem Punkt wird es beliebig und der Begriff Abstraktion als Bezeichnung für den Film inoperabel, im wittgensteinschen Sinne nicht anwendbar – bedeutungslos.

Ein schwarzes Quadrat auf weißem Grund. Für die meisten Menschen sind Malewitschs suprematistische Arbeiten, insbesondere das schwarze Viereck, abstrakte Malerei par excellence. Doch was Malewitsch tatsächlich anstrebte war nicht Abstraktion, sondern die vollkommene Loslösung der Kunst von der Natur, Malewitsch wollte das Gegenständliche in der Kunst auflösen. Ganz wie es, per Zufall, der oben erwähnte Film des Künstlers Mark Luyten tut. Und aus demselben Grund ist Malewitschs Suprematismus keine Abstraktion. Geometrische Figuren, die in der Kunstwissenschaft generell als “geometrische Abstraktionen” gelistet werden, sind konkret. Die Unterscheidung zwischen abstrakt und konkret ist hier von ganz besonderer Bedeutung. Auch historisch: immer wieder gab es Künstlerbewegungen, die sich gegen das Etikett “Abstraktion” gewendet und eine andere Terminologie, wie etwa “Konkrete Kunst”, für ihre Arbeiten eingeführt haben (van Doesburg, Mondrian, Matisse, et al). Konkrete Kunst ist selbstreferentiell, da sie sich ausschließlich auf ihr Kunst-Sein und Kunst-Werden bezieht. Die Figuren, Geometrien, sind nicht das Wesentliche des Dargestellten, sondern das Wesen des Darstellens. An diesem Punkt wird die Kunst autonom.

In den Naturwissenschaften, der Mathematik, aber auch der Soziologie ist die Abstraktion ein Vorgang zur Systematisierung, mit deren Hilfe Versuchsreihen und Konzepte erstellt werden können, die ein Verstehen komplexer Vorgänge und Zusammenhänge möglich machen. Komplexitäten werden simplifiziert oder verallgemeinert, die Fülle von Details reduziert. Ähnliches passiert mit Sprache. Sprache ist die Abstraktion von Gedanken, denn diese sind an sich zu vielschichtig, um sie “unbehandelt” zu äußern. Zwar wird Sprache durch ihre Simplifizierung defizitär und führt letzten Endes auch zu Missverständnissen. Dennoch ermöglicht sie Kommunikation mittels Abstraktion.

Abstraktion hat folglich eine Funktion: verstehbar zu machen. Dies ist auch in der Kunst nicht anders. Der abstrakte Expressionismus beispielsweise reduziert das Abbild von Figuren und Gegenständen aus einem bestimmten Grund. Das Augenmerk soll auf die subjektive Form- oder Farbgebung gelenkt, es sollen Emotionen, Narrative oder anderes sichtbar gemacht werden. Bei geometrischen Formen funktioniert dieser Prozess nicht. Ein Auto zu einem roten Viereck zu abstrahieren heißt, diesen Gegenstand komplett in eine andere Form zu übersetzen und ihn somit aus der Abstraktion zu isolieren; zu abstrahieren aber meint zu distanzieren, nicht aufzuheben oder zu ersetzen.

Wir haben für die achte Ausstellung bei Essays und Observations die Künstler Albrecht Schäfer, Jeremiah Day, Karolin Meunier, Lucy Powell, Mario Asef und Øystein Aasan gebeten, uns anhand einer Arbeit ihre Sicht auf Abstraktion zu eröffnen. Zudem hat sich Dale Holmes dazu bereit erklärt, einige von uns im Rahmen der Ausstellungsvorbereitung verfassten Stichpunkte zu überarbeiten sowie einen eigenen Text zum Thema beizusteuern. Dale Holmes arbeitet zurzeit an seiner Doktorarbeit über Abstraktion. Allen Beteiligten ist daran gelegen, die Basis für weiterführende Diskussionen zum Thema zu schaffen. Was verstehen wir heute unter Abstraktion? Ist eine Fotografie abstrakt, da sie ein Motiv aus der Zeit löst; ist ein gefundenes Objekt ein Abstraktum, da es aus seinem alltäglichen Kontext herausgetrennt wird? Wie weit möchte man Abstraktion fassen? Oder sollte der Begriff nicht erweitert, sondern im Gegenteil eingeengt werden, um ihn schärfer und weniger beliebig zu machen?

2 comments.

  1. “The meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

    The verb “use” is central in Wittgenstein’s sentence:
    What this means, is that in order to investigate the meaning of a word, we’d better look first at when (under what circumstances) this word is used.
    This emphasis on “usage” as determining the meaning of a word, is an emphasis on action as opposed to definition, and an emphasis on circumstance (or context) as opposed to finitude or constance.

    That the usage of a word constitutes its meaning, humbly acknowledges contextuality (circumstance) and common sense (usual usage) as uttermost providers of the meaning of a word.
    Shouldn’t we subject our understanding of a word to the understanding of the circumstances that bring about its use?
    But that’s not all:
    Whenever we choose to use a word in a certain context, we act upon its meaning. Every circumstance in which a word is used modifies its meaning, by way of re-enforcement, extension, contradiction, or deviation from its usual use.

    Friedrich Meschede, in calling this Mark Luyten film the “perfect abstraction,” makes a classical error of reasoning: that abstraction means the obliteration of everything figurative and objective

    This “classical error of reasoning” is nonetheless an example of how the word abstraction is most widely used, in the context of art.

    Why not start from here, and try to explain this usage in that context, as a way of uncovering what abstraction means in the context of art?
    Or is the goal to decide what abstraction means, rather than to explain what it means (how it is used)?
    That really is the question a serious thinker ought to ask himself: whether he philosophizes, or whether he investigates.

    If we say that whether they know it or not, most people are using a certain word in the wrong circumstance, we are militants, not investigators. And we have a lot of explaining to do!

    If we do not militate, then in the context of art, abstraction means what somebody means when they say “this is an abstract painting”.

    In the context of language, “abstraction” is a rather abstract word: nobody knows what it means, we only encounter occasional and varied circumstances where its usage seems appropriate. And therefore we can easily (and freely) militate for what we think its meaning should be, regardless of the context in which it is used.
    That is not the case for the word “cat” or “chair” for example: it is not easy, and hardly ever justifiable, to say that a cat is in fact a chair, or to point at a chair and say “this is a cat”. Because we do know in what circumstance to use these words, we have little business using them in any other circumstance.
    The meaning of “Abstraction”, on the contrary, is wide open for debate, for philosophizing.

    Yet when somebody says “this is an abstract painting”, we know what they mean, and we could say that that’s all there is to it.
    There is no other meaning to find in the word, than the one we can infer from its general use.
    The usage of “abstraction” is vague, as is its meaning. It has no stronger or more precise definition, than this usual vagueness.
    Looking for a better understanding of such word resorts to philosophizing.

    And philosophizing is a mirage, that is precisely Wittgenstein’s point.
    That is the point he tried to make all his life, and particularly during his “second period”, from which this phrase was quoted.
    Then, he admitted that his “Tractatus Logico Philosophicus” was a failure, renounced philosophizing, and instead tried to investigate.

    “The meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

  2. But the word “abstract” has been used in other fields long before it came up in the arts – and there it already had and still has its given context and its meaning derives from that context. Your idea of the term “use” would lead to a situation in which every single word becomes relative in an absolute way. But a word is only relative in relation to the context it is explained by. Wittgenstein didn’t say that one can change a word’s use in order to change its meaning. What he meant was that one has to be aware of its (given) context in order to be able to understand or explain or use it. The context though is not inter-changeable.
    The problem with the use of the word “abstract” in art history and art theory is precisely that it (partly) ignores its given context. Alfred Barr used the word initially correctly (in our analysis). But since the 1930s, there have been many developments in the use of the word that Barr (obviously) could not foresee. Now the word is almost devoid of contextual meaning—it is precisely as if a cat was a chair, using your example. Or that a cat would no longer be a cat in the art context. This should not be allowable, but is sadly the case. Art history and art theory has consistently ignored the contexts of the terms it employs.
    - The meaning of a word is only vague when misused in the language.

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