Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Abstraction - Empathy

Why do we change our minds about what we find beautiful? In 1907 a young German art historian named Wilhelm Worringer published an essay entitled Abstraction and Empathy, in which he attempted to explain our shifts from a psychological perspective. He began by suggesting that during the span of human history there had been only two basic types of art, abstract and realistic, either one of which might, at any given time in a particular society, be favoured over the other. Through the millennia, the abstract had enjoyed popularity in Byzantium, Persia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Congo, Mali and Zaire, and it was just then, at the opening of the twentieth century, returning to prominence in the West. This was an art governed by a spirit of symmetry, order, regularity and geometry. Whether in the form of sculpture or carpets, mosaics or pottery, whether in the work of a basket weaver from Wewak or that of a painter from New York, abstract art aspired to create a tranquil atmosphere marked by flat, repetitive visual planes, the whole being free of any allusion to the living world.

By contrast, Worringer noted, realistic art, which had dominated aesthetics in the Ancient Greek and Roman eras and held sway in Europe from the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century, sought to evoke the vibrancy and colour of tangible experience. Artists of this stripe strove to capture the atmosphere of a threatening pine forest, the texture of human blood, the swelling of a teardrop or the ferocity of a lion.

Jacques-Louis David - Oath of the Horatii (1785)

The most compelling aspect of Worringers theory a point as readily applicable to architecture as it is to painting was his explanation of why a society might transfer its loyalty from the one aesthetic mode to the other. The determinant lay, he believed, in those values which the society in question was lacking, for it would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply within itself. Abstract art, infused as it was with harmony, stillness and rhythm, would appeal chiefly to societies yearning for calm societies in which law and order were fraying, ideologies were shifting, and a sense of physical danger was compounded by moral and spiritual confusion. Against such a turbulent background (the sort of atmosphere to be found in many of the metropolises of twentieth-century America or in New Guinean villages enervated by generations of internecine strife), inhabitants would experience what Worringer termed an immense need for tranquillity, and so would turn to the abstract, to patterned baskets or the minimalist galleries of Lower Manhattan.

Kasimir Malevich - Black Circle (1913)

But in societies which had achieved high standards of internal and external order, so that life therein had come to seem predictable and overly secure, an opposing hunger would emerge: citizens would long what its advocates lack as about what they like. We can understand a seventeenth-century elites taste for gilded walls by simultaneously remembering the context in which this form of decoration developed its appeal: one where violence and disease were constant threats, even for the wealthy fertile soil from which to begin appreciating the corrective promises offered by angels holding aloft garlands of flowers and ribbons.

We shouldnt believe that the modern age, which often prides itself on rejecting signs of gentility and leaves walls unplastered and bare, is any less deficient. It is merely lacking different things. An absence of politesse is no longer the prevailing dread. In most Western cities, at least, the worst of the slums have been replaced by clean, well-charted streets. Life in much of the developed world has become rule-bound and materially abundant, punctilious and routine, to the extent that longings now run in another direction: towards the natural and unftissy, the rough and authentic longings that bourgeois households may rely on unrendered walls and breeze blocks to help them to assuage.

- Alain de Botton

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