Rick Barot, “During the Pandemic” 1; Jackson Pollock, “Red Composition” (1946)

for Ariana

“During the pandemic,” Rick Barot informs us, “I thought of abstract art.” Deadly sickness and artistic style can appear a strange combination, but perhaps no more strange than repeatedly checking a phone during a boring date. But Barot aims to provoke, as his thoughts must occupy those who compose the body politic, whether they are formally welcome in it or not. His next sentence: “Abstract art, the art historian claimed, was the most democratic kind of art because it allowed for anyone’s interpretations, anyone’s feelings.”

During the Pandemic 1
Rick Barot

During the pandemic, I thought of abstract art. Abstract art,
the art historian claimed, was the most democratic kind of art
because it allowed for anyone's interpretations, anyone's
feelings. You didn't have to know anything to get it. For
instance, the canvas that was painted uniformly black could
be open-ended and be a consensus at the same time. Like a
plague.

When plague struck during the Middle Ages, the authorities, even without the benefit of science, could have still progressed against it simply by addressing poverty and public hygiene. Not allowing rats to breed en masse should have been policy regardless of whether a city was afflicted by the plague; citizens should not be so neglected they can only dwell in filth. Those societies and governments, many hold, were in the grip of a litany of superstitions and stereotypes. They didn’t have science, they did not proclaim “all men are created equal.” Yet here we are, dominated by COVID-19, with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, most deaths entirely preventable.

We have abstract art, democracy, and catastrophic failure.

“Anyone’s interpretations, anyone’s feelings”—I’ve learned that these are not necessarily characteristic of democratic practice. What fascism is, properly speaking, is a “hack,” an exploit. A way of abusing a weakness in a system to get power. The system says people can say what they want. So what if you use that privilege to attack the existence of other people? What if, in attacking their existence, you find allies? Your speech is violence, your gaining of allies is political power. The ends of the system were rational discourse and peace among men. Both those ends have been completely destroyed because of the cynical, cruel use of your “interpretations” and “feelings.”

Barot gives us a “canvas… painted uniformly black,” one that “could be open-ended and be a consensus at the same time. Like a plague.” His picture calls to mind a quote of Arendt’s. “Anyone’s interpretations, anyone’s feelings” not only fails to guard against hate, but also fails to prevent lies. Arendt: “If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore.” A society tired of the truth cannot resist dictatorship and, in truth, breaks down. Individuals lose their capacity to judge, she says, and one might wonder whether society may even exist if everything feels like manipulation, war, or death.

*

When reading “abstract art, the art historian claimed, was the most democratic kind of art,” I confess I felt guilt. This is the kind of crap I say as a teacher, I think. I say it to make the material sound important. Also, to try to sound smart. How to introduce abstract art, an entire genre, a world unto itself? The word “democracy” shouldn’t even enter the argument, but it does. The very idea of introducing people to abstract art seems democratic. Access to multiple modes of expression, to understanding not just how to have a voice, but to project and develop it.

A friend shared with me Jackson Pollock’s Red Composition (1946), and I’ve been staring at it each time I’m online. The red and yellow are strangely calming; the painting demonstrates a specific understanding of how their warmth works. Red, always present, like tacky Valentine’s cards from grade school (“Optimus Prime autobots his way to your heart”)—not blinding, not an obstacle, but happily ubiquitous. And then, those thin yellow lines and inky splashes. They don’t look messy but necessary, hinting at an unrealized order. They are literally brighter than the red, black, and blue dancing across the painting. The yellow serves as light on the canvas, as if one only sees the rest because of it.

Jackson Pollock, "Red Composition" (1946). An abstract painting primarily red, with streaks of blue, black, and yellow on canvas.
Jackson Pollock, Red Composition (1946). Image from Christie’s.

In teaching, I try to prepare for the rudest reception. “So what. You’ve got some fancy words about two colors. Who cares?” —Well, the colors may have a calming effect. That effect can be described through a particular sort of color theory where there are warm colors such as red or orange and cool colors like blue or white. In this case, the warm colors, by evoking ideas of love and light, create a sense of home.— “What does that have to do with anything? That’s entirely how you feel. What if I see this painting and see violence?” —It may be the case that abstract art is “the most democratic kind of art,” that anyone can say anything about it. But it does seem like some interpretations are better than others, some feelings fit better. What matters is how one justifies oneself, and that process can’t be neatly removed from consideration of the artwork. You have to look at it, explain what you’re feeling, explain how the elements strike you, and begin to tie it together. Inevitably, some interpretations are more convincing, others less convincing. As if the opinions hover around a greater truth.— “What does that tell us about abstract art?” —I’m not sure, but maybe that the freer form of abstract art hides a more difficult calling. The freedom on the audience’s part is akin to learning a language. Some meanings will strike other users of the language as wrong. We don’t dismiss their objections as merely subjective. Rather, we hold the opinions of knowers of a language authoritative.—

I can only deal with the rudest reception to a degree. Once in a while, someone will ask why books matter at all, even after I’ve explained what I learned from a book and how it changed my thinking. Or I’ll describe an issue in depth and walk through the sources that helped me understand a situation. Immediately I’ll be recommended something off-topic that I should consider, not because it’s relevant to what I described, but because someone needs to feel they too have done the work (they haven’t). I realize now why I have to say stuff like “abstract art is the most democratic sort of art.” The problem is how to introduce the problem, how to indicate how there are questions. That canvases full of paint are not just decorations in The Sims; democracy isn’t just a synonym for “I like my life in my country.” You have to bring those two concepts together, concepts barely thought about in one’s mind, let alone related, in order to bring each to life. It’s nearly as crazy as staring at an orange and asking if it were a rocketship. But if you did this to the nth degree, and wondered why oranges fall and what speed rockets have to achieve to leave Earth, you’ve recreated the universe.

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