Nine years ago, the respected Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto published a book with a lightning-rod subtitle, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. In it, De Soto argued that one of the main difficulties of life in the developing world is purely conceptual: in many places, it’s not the immediate threat of starvation making everything suck, it’s the fact that you can’t get an accurate deed to your house. You might think you own a house, a car, or a farm, but if you can’t get the right paperwork, it’s impossible to use those as collateral for a loan. Without loans, good luck going to college, starting a business, or adding on a room for the kids.
De Soto’s key insight is that there’s nothing real about the issue. It’s a problem of words, that can be fixed by diligently applying accurate terms to things: the antidote is someone with a clipboard and a rubber stamp saying, “This is a bedroom, that is a fence, this is a certified piece of property.” Words are powerful things.
I wonder if a similar problem won’t affect abstract art, especially as technology marches forward. Contemporary art’s holy grail is the irreducible artwork, the painting that can’t be described or transmitted, only experienced in the flesh. The art theorist Rosalind Krauss described this as art’s “will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.” The rule of thumb, for most of the art world, seems to be that if you can accurately describe a painting over the phone, it’s probably derivative. Historically, artists and writers alike saw that as a challenge: at the height of abstract expressionism and the old New York intelligentsia, theorists and critics were coming up with new terms as quickly as artists could defy them. The writer and art historian W.J.T. Mitchell claimed that Charles Altieri once wrote 75 pages on Malevich’s “Suprematist Composition: Red Square and Black Square,” a work whose title is description enough for most people (spoiler: the red square is tilted).
At some point, writers’ interests changed. Theory wandered off in esoteric directions, and never cemented into everyday language. While psychoanalysis managed to get us talking about Oedipus and the id, and pasta-makers managed to get us differentiating between capellini (0.8mm in diameter) and spaghetti (1.5mm in diameter), the terms of abstract art never caught on. Nobody today thinks to use “painterliness”, “theatricality”, or “openness” as tumblr tags.
That’s a problem. The internet is pretty much run on words, whether they be tags, search terms, or blog text, and abstraction is in the tough position of having spent the past century waging a public war against language. Check out the website of Gerhard Richter, perhaps the best-respected artist since Andy Warhol: you can sort through dozens of categories of figurative painting, from “cars” to “apples”, “flowers” to “rural landscapes”, but his huge body of abstract work is simply broken down by date. If you like a painting, and want to find similar ones, your best bet might be searching by color; if you want to find other artists making similar work, you’ll have to ask your neighborhood art critic-or, if you’re a collector, a dealer.
If it’s hard to see why that’s a problem, consider this: everyone has a story that goes something like, “When I was thirteen, my brother/sister/boyfriend gave me a record by the Ramones/Depeche Mode/Wiley. I liked it. I found out that this type of music was called ‘punk’/’new wave’/’grime,’ and then I tried to find all the punk/new wave/grime music I could! It was a good summer.” Labels help us develop real taste, borne out of choice rather than limitation or authoritarianism, and they’re essential to how we discover new bits of culture. There is no analogue for this story and contemporary abstract painting.
When it’s difficult to find works for their actual qualities, we start to rely on name recognition, and the most famous painters simply build their brands. We keep buying Ramones albums, or (if you’re a Sheikh) Gerhard Richter paintings, and our taste starts to be determined by whoever has the best promotion.
We’ve watched for nearly a year as pundits have invented, from whole cloth, their own definitions for the Occupy movement, slanted towards whatever purpose was needed for the case at hand; the movement was systematically punished for its refusal to define itself. Perhaps abstraction is headed down the same path, doomed to success only when it can be backed by the concentrated branding power of a blue-chip gallery. Our consolation might be De Soto’s insight: it’s only a problem of words.