Since 2001, we have included in our December issue a special section on the visual arts. We continue the tradition in this issue with a wide-ranging series of essays and reviews by Eric Gibson, Marco Grassi, Michael J. Lewis, James Panero, Karen Wilkin, and others. As often happens, certain themes suddenly coalesce and unplanned continuities emerge. One such theme in this issue concerns that much abused, much misunderstood term “abstraction.” For its partisans, “abstraction” was a rallying cry, a weapon even; for its detractors it was another name for aesthetic futility. Somewhere along the line, the simple truth of the matter got lost. David Yezzi’s conversation with Graham Nickson, the painter and, since 1989, dean of the New York Studio School gives us a glimpse into the engine room of some of the most vital contemporary artistic practice and helps clarify the issue:

DY: It’s been suggested that your paintings “mediate between representation and abstraction.” Is this an important dynamic in your work?
GN: I’ve always believed that all great painting is essentially abstract, and that the imagery—the figuration—is actually the bonus that makes it more intriguing. The battle between abstraction and figuration for me isn’t the issue. The issue is basically whether the image is as powerful as the abstraction. Many of the works I’ve tried to do combine these two elements so that they synthesize into a powerful image that also has a strong [element of] abstraction.

The real battle, as Karen Wilkin notes in her essay “Abstraction’s moment,” is not between figurative and non-figurative art but between a view of art that places “aesthetic delectation” at the center of our concern with art and a view that subordinates such pleasures to what Marcel Duchamp championed in his efforts to direct our attention to “regions more verbal.” The triumph of that Duchampian model in many precincts of the art world has been tantamount to the sabotage of the aesthetic. “Unfortunately,” Wilkin notes,

the minds of many spectators, who include makers of art as well as art historians, critics, and curators, have been carried so far into regions so purely literary (in deference to Duchamp) that they seem to have forgotten that the eye is part of the brain. Like Duchamp, they are made uneasy by “aesthetic delectation,” assuming that art that wordlessly addresses the eye, that looks like nothing but itself, is mindless—which is to say, they are profoundly mistrustful of abstraction.

Which is to say, they are profoundly distrustful of visual experience unmediated by a scaffolding of words and extra-aesthetic alibis.

Michael Lewis touches on a kindred issue in his finely considered essay about the Marxist critic T. J. Clark. Having come of age in the late 1960s, Clark made his reputation in the 1970s by shifting attention away from the work of art per se and focusing instead on the ambient social history in which the work appeared. Nimbly pursued, this effort to revitalize art by an injection of political concerns approach can yield exciting insights—though whether the insights have much to do with art is another question. In the end, the critical liabilities are probably more patent than the interpretative advantages. This is especially true when the method is applied to great works of art. “The tendency of Clark’s career,” Lewis writes,

has been to dislodge the aesthetic object from its pedestal to set it back into the social, cultural, and political currents that brought it forth. Such an approach, wielded judiciously, can immeasurably enrich the understanding of an object. But, used indiscriminately, it can also impoverish that understanding, rendering the object into a mere historical document—like a bill of lading or a deed of transfer. And a mediocre work of art always speaks far more eloquently about the society that made it than a great one.

When the subject is art, “social history” is more fruitful the more pedestrian the work it considers. No wonder so many politically-fired academic critics are so eager to blur the distinction between high art and popular culture, between superlative artistic achievement and the great pudding of mediocrity. For a political interpretation of art, greatness is a distraction at best, at worst it is a rival for the reader’s or viewer’s attention.

At least since the 1970s, efforts to dethrone the aesthetic and short-circuit or marginalize greatness have triumphed in the academy and many other institutions charged with the preservation and transmission of our artistic patrimony. Several of the pieces in this issue discern a possible change in the ideological weather, a shift away from regarding ideology as the proper end of the critical project. It is too early to call these preliminary sightings a forecast or gather them together to make a prediction. But here and there we sense an accumulation of positive signs, a yearning for something lost—a recognition, at least, that something has been lost.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 4, on page 2
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