The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

The future of abstract art (2003)

New Criterion. Letter of comment, with Hilton Kramer reply.

In "Does abstract art have a future?" (December 2002), Hilton Kramer speculates that it may not. He could be right. I am an abstract painter, however, and I would rather that he isn't.

Kramer points out that abstract painting has "an inevitably symbiotic relation to representational art" and that the larger question is "the fate of painting itself." He goes on to give examples of the complete absence of abstract painting in current high-level survey exhibitions.

His observations and conclusions are accurate. I maintain, however, that abstract and representational art are more than "symbiotically related"; at this point in art history, they are continuous. That is, we now understand that nothing is completely realistic and nothing is completely abstract, and the sharp distinction that was such a hot topic fifty years ago is now of little consequence. To a viewer of any sophistication it is no more important than red paint or green paint. The real division is not between realistic and abstract but between the traditional use of art as a vehicle for aesthetic apprehension and pleasure, and the current use of art for just about anything else. It is not a matter of medium or method but of attitude, not a matter of realistic painting or abstract painting or anything physical, but of what we ask art to do for us. It is not just abstract painting that is in trouble, but art itself.

The difference between abstract and representational art becomes explicit now only because mainstream academic postmodernism insists on overt meaning and message in all art, and, simultaneously, derides and discourages intuitively derived aesthetic pleasure. This singles out abstract art for rejection not because it is non-representational, but because it declares by its character that it must be seen for aesthetic comprehension only. Realist painting can adapt. It can carry a postmodernist message. That's why we see more realist painting than abstract painting now. That's why the Museum of Modern Art, with exaggerated enthusiasm and more than just a suggestion that it is, after all, in favor of painting, puts on a major exhibit for Gerhard Richter, whose paintings are as chilling and lifeless and as heartlessly academic as any postmodernist pile of detritus anywhere.

The first panel discussion I ever took part in, entitled "Is Painting Dead?," was at NYU in 1966. It was chaired by Barbara Rose and included Donald Judd, Larry Poons, and Robert Rauschenberg. (Poons and I, of course, said "no," Judd, of course, said "yes," and Rauschenberg, typically, didn't really care and was funny). That was thirty-seven years ago. Painting hasn't died, and it won't die. It has borne great art for so long, and it retains so many methods and conventions useful for just that purpose, that it certainly cannot be said to be internally exhausted. Externally, it suffers in the cultural marketplace by its relative inability to accommodate the current regressive trend. But very good painting, and, yes, very good abstract painting, is being made and appreciated all over the place. It is not "movement abstraction" as Kramer calls it, not a singular, concentrated crucible-type event that is seen as an entity and gets a name, but it is alive and well nevertheless. That's where the art is now, in reserve, biding its time. People are hungry for the real thing, for nourishment, not recipes or bitter medicine. We sense that there is something in art that brings out the best in ourselves, and we sense that we need it. If painting, abstract or representational or somewhere in between, can give it to us, we are going to want it back.

It will take a while for this to happen, but it will. Mainstream Postmodernist art is just too nasty, boring, and silly to last. How we came to this unfortunate condition is a long sad story which has been told well but incompletely by a few perceptive writers, and will, one day, be a favorite subject of doctoral dissertations, most of them in the fields of sociology and psychology rather than art history. Perhaps they will make comparisons between social revolutions and art revolutions, tracing from the time when revolution (innovation) brought a freer, better life (art), to a later time when revolution (innovation) brought tyranny (terrible art), always, in each case, abetted by so-called liberal intellectuals. Will they compare the eventual turn against repressive postmodernist academicism to the fall of Soviet Communism? I wouldn't be at all surprised.

Hilton Kramer replied in the same issue:

As much as I loathe what Mr. Bannard characterizes as "repressive postmodernist academicism," I very much doubt that any intellectually competent historian will ever compare its eventual demise to "the fall of Soviet Communism." Postmodernism is certainly not a disaster of comparable magnitude, and to suggest otherwise is to trivialize one of the greatest disasters in human history. It may, however, be useful to compare Postmodernist art to the kind of Socialist Realism that was the official art style of the Soviet regime. But none of this has much to tell us about the future prospects of abstract painting, which was the subject I was addressing in my essay "Does abstract art have a future?"

I don't think it clarifies matters, either, to declare that "we now understand that nothing is completely realistic and nothing is completely abstract." I deliberately avoided the very idea of "realism" in speaking of abstraction's symbiotic relation to representational art for that very reason. The aesthetic differences that separate abstract painting from representational painting may not matter to an abstract painter like Mr. Bannard, but it is my impression that these differences matter a lot to most representational painters, for whom the selection of a subject is often of vital aesthetic importance. I don't think it advances the discussion of abstract painting to dismiss such differences as unimportant.