Chasing the Void: Modernity, Abstraction, and Aesthetics

“Art is a matter of taste rather than of thinking, and taste must always struggle to refine and improve itself in contact with the art object.”
…….– Clement Greenberg

One might describe 1911 as the year the world began chasing the Void. Across the course of the next year, a series of artists including Vasily Kandinsky, Fernard Léger, Robert Delaunay, František Kupka, and Francis Picabia exhibited works that marked the beginning of something radically new: they dispensed with recognizable subject matter.1 The Age of Abstraction might best describe the artistic quest for a new vocabulary for the arts: artists and composers, dancers and poets, all began establishing a new modern language that would allow them to decompose the phenomenal world into the pure madness of the void where the real object devoid of its accidents and profiles could allure and fascinate.

Charles Baudelaire in an earlier era broached a new sense of abstraction as a language separate from nature, humanly created and therefore essentially artificial: “In nature there is neither line nor color. Line and color have been created by man. They are abstractions. . . .The pleasures we derive in them are of a different sort, yet they are perfectly equal to and absolutely independent of the subject of the picture.” This sense of something subtracted from the phenomenal, some thing that could not be named or seen directly that seemed to evoke a sense of horrors just below the cut of things and give a certain “jouissance” a pleasure/pain alluring one into the depths of appearance as if in pursuit of some self-lacerating thing hiding in the void. Wilhelm Worringer in his early Abstraction and empathy (1908) would describe a “will to abstraction” in both primitive and modern societies, a common expression of anxiety and vulnerability in relation to an external world not confidently mastered. The “aim of abstraction”—here Worringer picked up on the meaning of the word as an isolating operation—was “to wrest the object of the external world out of its natural context, out of the unending flux of being, to purify it of all its dependence upon life (i.e. of everything about it that was arbitrary, to render it necessary and irrefragable, to approximate it to its absolute value).” (ibid., p. 12)

In one of his many notebooks Vasily Kandinsky would remark of this new art: “Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?” Instead of depicting something, these artists rather thought it more defining to depict, instead, nothing, nothing at all. But what is abstraction? How define this objectless realm? Had these artists all gone mad, withdrawn from the world of every day life: the phenomenal realm of appearance and objective objects, reality itself? Had they contracted from the outer horizon of thought, folded themselves in the cocoon of a solipsistic desert, an inner horizon of the Mind alone in its emptiness: with its “self-reflecting nothingness” (Zizek) circling in a void. Or was there something else going on here? If so, what was this “something“?

Observers spoke of the exhilaration and terror of leaping into unknown territory, where comparison with the past was impossible. This evacuation of the object world was, to be sure, hardly a silent disappearance, but rather was accompanied by a shower of celebratory  manifestos, lectures, and criticism, a flood of words flung forth perhaps in compensation for their makers’ worry about how the meaning of these pictures might be established. (ibid., p. 7) It was as if a whole generation of young men and women had awakened into some new view onto the Real, discovered a new realm never before seen or unseen in the eye, a momentary darkness become visible in the very destruction and withdrawal of the objects of the world.

No longer did the sensual textures of the world, the pleasures of the refined labors of the sun, or the shadowed contours of the moon, the dark night of stars and galactic mysteries seem to sway these pioneers of modernity. No. The outside was gone, now the objectless world of the interior Void would reveal its stark secrets. Picasso of his own transition into Cubism would wryly say “I painted them in afterwards. I call them  ‘attributes.’ (ibid. p. 8) As if he were describing some other hidden realm that lay within the medium of the paint and canvas, a real object hidden and away that could only be revealed in its secret energetic folds by way of subtracting its ‘attributes’, isolating it in the purity of its absolute darkness, allowing the light of its excess to unlock the secret being at the core of its withdrawn momentum. What was this hidden object in the void of its own energetic core? Were the moderns after all the inventors of other objects, objects that seemed to dance in their own inner light or darkness? A world manifest through the subtle nuances of color, profile, sensual allure rather than by way of confining the eye to the known? Were these artists delving into some arcane and obscurantist mysticism? Or, were they instead uncovering an aspect of the Real none had made explicit before or since?

As if in answer Picasso himself would declare in horror at what he’d dared to uncover, that abstraction was impossible: “There is no abstract art. You always have to begin with something. Afterwards you can remove all appearances of reality, but there is no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark.” (ibid., p. 8) Was this the art of ‘subtraction’? An art that would retroactively “remove the appearances,” revealing what lay within the sensual profiles under the folds of qualia and attributes? An Idea of the Object: or, the object itself within the folds of its own being or nothingness, the naked Object known only by its effects, its sparks?

Even that indefatigable explorer of the unknown Kandinsky in his lectures On the Spiritual in Art would admit:

“As yet, objects did not want to—and were not to—disappear altogether from my pictures. First, it is impossible to conjure up maturity artificially at any particular time. . . . I myself was not yet sufficiently mature to be able to experience purely abstract form without bridging the gap by means of objects.”

This sense of immaturity and helplessness before the uncanny worlds they’d uncovered, the realms of withdrawn objects needed a bridge – a “gap by means of objects”. So in this sense was it the gap that became more important than the bridge? A gap as crossing-over the void without content, a void of self-reflecting nothingness that close itself off from the outer comforts of the known, and opened itself to the strange unknown territories of abstraction? Was this more than a temptation to psychosis? Isn’t this very withdrawal from the world of objects Freud’s definition of madness?

When Delaunay wrote to Kandinsky in 1911, saying, “This inquiry into pure painting is the current problem, I do not know any painters in Paris who are truly seeking this ideal world.” (ibid., p. 9) Is this it? Were these mad hatters of modernism utopianists, seekers of the absolute, questors after the impossible ideal world? Is modernity after all a withdrawal from the messiness of things, the material ugliness of reality, the spume and spawn of shit and death, finitude and the limits of thought? Paul Klee speaking of an exhibition by Delaunay remarked that he “has created the type of autonomous picture, which leads, without motifs from nature, to a completely abstract life form. A structure of plastic life, nota bene, almost as far removed as a Bach fugue is from a carpet.” (ibid., p. 9)

Are we not seeing here the first hints of our present world of artificial life? Were not the seeds of our era of Artificial Intelligence and abstract formless systems of immaterialism and network society born in the movement of modernity’s abstract art? It was Kandinsky himself in one of those now famous reminiscences, often repeated in the literature, who would tell of seeing one of his own paintings leaning on its side, at dusk, sometime after his arrival in Munich in 1896. Incapable of discerning its content, he was nonetheless captivated by the forms and colors of this mysterious work—an event prompting the realization “that objects harmed my pictures.” (ibid., p. 10)

The sense that the phenomenal world was an enemy, a threat to the art of modernity. That the outer world of senses most for whatever reason be refused: the great refusal of the Outside. Can we see in this all those later systems of withdrawal, undecidability, linguistic turns into the prison house of Mind and Thought and Language? Was there in these artist a fear and horror of the external, the extensive, the realm of appearance, of the senses?

We know that it was at this same moment that H.P. Lovecraft and many of his pulp horror enclave would begin writing of such horrors across the ocean from this world of elite arts. Was there some strange relation between the emergence of pure abstract art and the horror of things and the cosmos itself that arose in the pulp magazines of America? We will leave that for another post…

The notion of Abstraction itself  according to Georges Roque and Jean-Claude Lebensztejn who have recently traced its evolution from early senses as a verbal act meaning “to remove,” “to isolate.” By the sixteenth century, the word had the sense of “considering in isolation,” of “separating accident from substance” (Lebensztejn), so that one might, for example, begin to define the “abstract sciences” as those removed from practical application or empirical study—that is, from real-world concerns. Here abstraction functions as an operation, the act of abstracting one thing from another, and this understanding is still present in early abstract works in which traces of descriptive subject matter abound. (ibid., p. 12)

So that abstraction is this “subtraction” and withdrawal, an elimination for the Outside or real world of appearances, a form of division and differentiating things from things: the placement of the remainder in the site of the empty place, the void. Without accident, without attribute, nothing but the thing itself in all its purity as revealed within the stripped away truth of its own dark light. It was in this that we see those early forms of structuralism emerging as well in which later on the forms of signifier cut off from signified, the tracing of the signifier through the endless labyrinth of language, the knotted insistence on those black holed of rhetoric when language fails, the undecidable, etc. All of this prefigured in the early tracings of scientific and philosophical abstractions that would come to the fore in modernism as pure painting and pure poetry.

Clement Greenberg on this early period would champion the Modernity of Abstraction, especially in early Cubism – as having “reflected and mastered the highest possibilities of its medium at that point in history. In other words, despite his concern with the flatness of the canvas, there is a sense in which Greenberg is primarily interested in depth: in making the invisible deep conditions of any medium somehow visible in the content of the art”.2 It is this hidden world of the object within appearance as appearance, caught only in the medium, lure out of its dark lairs, brought forward by the adept strokes or linguist prowess of the abstraction, the accidents of time and history set aside revealing the integral movement of the real object itself isolated and subtracted from its milieu that is the newness of Modernity.

And, yet, this is not the whole story, only one aspect. I’ll need to return to the temporal dimension of the abstract art of modernism at a future time.

One could continue, but I’ll leave these meditations for now…


My Book in Progress

I’ll admit something:

Over the past few years in my struggle with the thought of Slavoj Zizek, along with that of some of the Speculative Realists, especially the work of Graham Harman – along with his associates, Ian Bogost, Levi R. Bryant, and Timothy Morton I’ve seen an inverse relation between the notions of Subject as Substance in Zizek, and the non-human Object as Substance of the OOO gang. Ever since reading Harman’s early work Tool-Being where he sees Zizek’s work as an adversary worthy of the name, and tries to reduce Zizek’s work to a deflationary realism I’ve gone back and forth. Investigating the one then the other philosopher, the various movements of the now defunct label SR of Speculative Realism of which some like Harman still hold a fondness. With several books already written explicating the Speculative Realism movement itself – from Tom Sparrow’s The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism, Peter Gratton’s Speculative Realisms Problems and Prospects, Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things On Speculative Realism, and Peter Wolfendale’s Object-Oriented Philosophy The Noumenon’s New Clothes one has a good introduction to the extremes of critical appraisal of this philosophical territory.

For my own part I’ve felt a need to put these ideas to work, to enable a dialogue between Zizek’s dialectical materialism, and the flat ontologies of OOO through the medium of aesthetics. Why aesthetics? Art at least in its avant garde stage has always been political, a statement of temporal movement along with a change in both the cognitive and affective relations we have with the world and our selves. Ours is a transitional time and there needs to be an open dialogue among the extremes of artistic, scientific, political, and sexual debates of our time. Caught between theories of the Subject, and those of the Object we seem to oscillate between the two poles in search of the Real – flouting now the one, then the other: moving in between the Real and Symbolic through the gap of the ‘vanishing mediator’ of our subjective void. Philosophy at this time situates itself in the non-All, the movement forward between the disjunctive “and” that cannot be closed down, a universe open and incomplete, at once Subject and Object but not in the old ways of Platonic or Aristotelian substance formalism: nothing solid remains. For better or worse ours is an age of subtraction, withdrawal, exit. Between times we live like guests at an impossible banquet, seeking to make visible that which hides in the darkness. Lost in the funhouse we seek a way out of the quagmire of Neoliberalism and the global culture of dominion and enslavement. Like the avant garde predecessors of earlier eras we discover in the secret traumatic core of our moment the open wound that offers us a way out. But the spear that opened the wound must be applied carefully in such a way that it is not completely healed. We must remain in the gap, open and incomplete. Realizing our knowledge is based on medial neglect – our brains built to understand and work on the environment through heuristical devices evolved over hundreds of thousands of years are giving way to a momentary collapse into “crash space” (Bakker):

Zizek’s ‘two options,’ that subjectivity is either illusory or nature is incomplete, provides only a cartoon of the dilemma, I think. Subjectivity as theorized by any given tradition-bound thinker (as an ‘ontological explosion,’ say) is clearly illusory, but subjectivity as a domain of inquiry is a *crash space.* The idioms involved do real work in practical contexts, which is a large part of the reason that theorists misapply them in theoretical contexts at all.

In other words, there’s at least two different levels of semantic catastrophe involved here, one involving theoretical explicitations of meaning, our traditional second-order understandings of ourselves (all of which trade in cognitive illusions), and the other involving the biopragmatics of meaning, the ways that intentional idioms allow us to solve (absent any second-order understanding) local and/or global social problems. The collapse of the former is simply the superficial first phase of the semantic apocalypse. It’s the collapse of the latter that will lead to the Big Splat.

As in other eras artists of every stripe have been as Ezra Pound once stated it the “antennae of the species”. Out ahead of others they seem to read the future hiding in the past, luring the uncanny truth out of its secret lair, revealing in the visible darkness the hidden life of objects. Not some vitalistic darkness, but rather the abstract core of things themselves as they work in our lives. Material objects surround us, but for the most part are lost among the accidental layers of sensuous appeal never releasing the secrets of their mystery. They are neither obscurantist and mystical pieces of the absolute, nor the undefined migrants of some outworn metaphysics, but rather the very real powers and capacities of the world itself. We, too, are set apart, isolated, cut out, subtracted by a distanciation from the world, traumatized by our very existence as self-positing nothings. The horror of our very freedom makes us seek to fill the gap with fantasies, to cover over our very radical excess – our evil: what else is evil but the excess that cannot  be tamed, domesticated, brought within the fold of some linguistic sign, some object of consciousness, closed off and controlled. Evil is the excess that will not be bound, enslaved, brought down in chains to any God. It is the inhuman core of the human itself that we dare not stare in the face less the abyss itself stares back.

Chasing the Void: Modernity, Abstraction, and Aesthetics will offer a window onto the conflictual relations among art, philosophy, and the sciences. Hopefully putting the concepts of Zizek and Harman to work in a agonistic manner that does not elide or erase the differences between them, but allows an open dialogue and confrontation will help clarify both extremes of our moment: a post-phenomenological aesthetics… At least that’s my goal.


  1. Matthew Affron. Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York (January 31, 2013))
  2. Harman, Graham. Greenberg, Duchamp, and the Next Avant-Garde (Page 252).Aesthetics in the 21st Century Speculations V. Editors Ridvan Askin, Paul J. Ennis, Andreas Hägler, Philipp Schweighauser. (punctum books, 2014)

 

9 thoughts on “Chasing the Void: Modernity, Abstraction, and Aesthetics

    • True, I have his work, but he’s dealing more with the semiosis of image and idea, rather than the notions of modernity, abstraction, and subject/object as void, etc. of which my work is dealing: as part of an inter-dialog between Zizek’s Subject-as-Substance, and Harman’s Substance-as-Object – both dealing not as in Plato-Aristotle with solid substantive form or phenomenal existence, but rather with the negativity at the core of real subjectivity and objects. More of a post-phenomenological aesthetics…

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  1. As much as I love Kandinsky and the powerful influence his art and philosophical musings had upon me in my youth his views seem somewhat naively optimistic to me today. As for Zizek? Well I think I will stick with Plato and Aristotle rather than embracing the void, they seem to have most of the bases covered. In this respect I think Hegel would have agreed with me. Some traditions abide in my opinion, although they may be in need of radical reform, that are worth our attention. How, for example, do subject/object or signifier/sign collide in the figure of Jesus?

    https://libcom.org/library/postmodern-left-success-neoliberalism

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  2. Interesting Blog. Your quote by Picasso reminded me of Schopenhauer’s process of abstraction. I don’t know why there would be a danger, anxiety for sure, but no real danger as the “indelible mark of the idea” starts to leave a trace and therefore a memory in the plasticity of the brain but it is an irregular one as the imagination can’t shape a recognizable figure with it not even a big and scary one hiding in the darkness of the void making us live in fear and trembling. As the will or desire, perhaps vacillates at first, towards and away, ultimately it is quieted down by the abstract work that doesn’t appeal to the will as being this or that and so keeps it demotivated and at ease like in an old country festival depicted in the Dutch paintings that Schopenhauer loved so much that when expressed means language has to go on a holiday and become as sort of ornamental drift across the emptiness of the screen. The demotivated festival of the will whose performance I just depicted Worringer refers to as the “crystilline beauty” of Riegl’s notion of “artistic will” which no doubt is related to Schopenhauer’s interpretation of Kant’s “thing-in-itself” and primitive oral culture with its pictographic memory. At least in my contextualization of how abstract practice works. Its history can be contexualized in so many ways and that of course influences how one understand so-called “modenity”. One time I discussed it in terms of Maimonides 12th century discussion of the “removal of the attributes” in “The Guide For The Perplexed”. Anyway, As Worringer points out abstraction is not necessarily a big scary earthquake, perhaps more like that alluded to by the French word “frisson” or shivering and goosebumps. It can be read as a sort of soothing global rhythm. Worringer points to the example of the “ornament of savage tribes” one can also add, Worringer goes on, there is Greek, Roman, Arabian decorative folk art. Abstract art is not necessarily anti-represenational. From “Abstraction and Empathy” again Worringer quotes Hildebrand (the sculptor) as suggesting that abstraction is there when a representation “creates an impression of flatness” or smooth plane of immanence. Then the “sacre fire” appears in the decorative drift of language gone on a holiday removing itself from being understood because the meaning of words loose their depth and so language becomes an instance of discourse, a performance more than a content to be interpreted as being this or that. Maybe Zizek feels all shook up and full of drama but I bet you Winnicott would say the abstracting process the object is going through is more like the breast of a woman or man for that matter. It demotivates the will as a transitional object and so renders the understanding inoperative and any community that could correspond to it.

    New to this blog and enjoying reading it.

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    • Glad you dropped by. I doubt Zizek is at all shook up by it. Obviously all these early modernist notions could be traced back and forward into other thinkers etc. This one was specific to that one moment. 🙂

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  3. Here is my two cents,
    They chased the void through painting as a subtraction, but I’d like to just add that the aim was undertaken through stylistic choices whose ‘epoch of style’ (not always but most of the time in modern art) carried an industrial metaphor. They did away with the object, but through indexing absences painters also ‘streamlined’ the canvas, as the factory metaphor is pervasive — I am thinking not so much of Kandinsky here as I am someone like Mondrian. Call it the machine-aesthetic. The aim to make consciousness non-objective, an imaginative apocalypse, was undertaken through the formal construction as a rationalist totality. Similar stylistic connotations can be seen in some of Kandinsky’s work especially in the Bauhaus years when the hard-edges begin to appear over and above atmosphere. Through such an underlining idiom they “chased the void” in the machine. But this should’ve really been an entropy at the site of the rationalist (Idealist) modernism. Take Malevich whose aim was to rid the world of appearances starting with the third-dimension, and then moving inwardly, and who used the style to put an end to style: Malevich’s is a totality coming to nothing. Malevich is like Brassier following extinction down the line. If a proposition is underway to repeat subtraction, as a kind of speculative art undergoing a confrontation with the Real, then I think it would take on a different constellation. Just as deep-time erodes the mortal specter, perhaps it shall be a confrontation through geology or the inorganic rather than industry? If one follows my proposition then the truth of the Black Square is also the black matte layer at the KT boundary. At least that would be my take on it, if one was to think stylistic choice was important – I claim it is, as Harold Rosenberg said: it makes claim to a wider attitude towards environment.

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