MENOPAUSE has overtaken abstract art. Gone are the youthful days of combative manifestos and unexpected new styles. Abstract art has become so much a part of our culture that it reigns uncontested part of our culture that it reigns uncontested over the artistic community.
But not more than 20 years ago, ciritcs hotly debated the acceptance of abstract art. Meyer Schapiro recalls those days in his collection of essays in Modern Art--19th and 20th Centuries. Schapiro asks three questions in particular: one, why do modern artists no longer consider nature the ideal model of harmony? Two, what has replaced it? And three, what has been the result of this change in emphasis?
To answer these questions, Schapiro discusses the social forces and the reactions to modern art that have influenced the artistic personality. Most significantly, the modern artist does not use reality as a source of inspiration but instead finds it constraining or destructive. To escape the confines of reality, the modern artist has abandoned the recognizable objects that limit the artistic imagination.
In free-swinging essays on the philosophy of art, Schapiro finds that modern artists have rebelled against the use of noble images--religious scenes, Greek myths--as the artistic ideal. They substitute for it a new "pure art" that "derives its effects from elements peculiar to itself," not from the imitation of identifiable objects. This anti-objective style allows for the creation of a "universal art"--one that cuts across time and culture and makes art intelligible to all. Abstraction protects the artist's freedom, which Schapiro calls an "indispensible condition," The loss of the decorum and restraint necessary to traditional art permits the artist to explore "new domains and intensities of feeling." Schapiro points out that the absence of recognizable objects places new demands on the modern artist who can no longer depend on his subject to focus the viewer's attention.
In the shortest of his essays, "On the Humanity of Abstract Painting," Schapiro defends modern art against the charge of inhumanity. He asserts that humanity in art "is not confined to the image of man. Man shows himself too in his relations to the surroundings, in his artifacts, and in the expressive character of all the signs and marks he produces."
Schapiro points to Cezanne, who, "in rendering the simplest objects bare of ideal meaning..." demonstrates the power of a creative mind. "The humanity of art," Schapiro tells us, "lies in the artist and not simply in what he represents..." He continues, "the charge of inhumanity brought against painting springs from a failure to see the works as they are." But how "are" they? The best in art "must be discovered in a sustained experience of serious looking and judging...." In other words, Schapiro assures us that if we look long and hard enough we will inevitably see what he sees--that some of the most compelling works in the history of art do not depict human forms.
The unenlightened viewer's problem, writes Schapiro, is one of "discriminating the good in an unfamiliar form which is often confused by the discouraging mass of insensitive imitations." His argument is simple: we have a moral responsibility to like abstract art and a moral duty to defend it. If we don't fulfill these tasks, we are insensitive. Worse, he labels as brain-damaged those who refuse to properly appreciate modern art. Those who condemn abstraction do so, because they require an "already known order, familiar and reassuring." Amazingly, Schapiro calls on a neurologist to verify this "handicap": "The sense of order in the patient is an expression of his impoverishment with respect to an essentially human trait: the capacity for adequate shifting of attitude."
While this absurd theorizing is highly personal, Schapiro offers more intelligible essays that fall into two main bodies: first, a technical historical approach to particular artists' work; and second, an examination of the psychological and social pressures manifest in an artist's work.
Of the first variety, Schapiro's study of the "Apples of Cezanne" is fascinating. Schapiro notes the central place given to apples in Cezanne's still lifes and explores the source of his choice of objects. Schapiro leads the reader through Cezanne's early paintings and writings to point out Cezannes's association of fruit and nudity and his particular use of apples to indicate "displaced erotic interest."
Of the second variety, Schapiro studies Van Gogh's "Crows Over the What Fields" in an attempt to understand the artist's last painting before suicide. This psychological essay probes the mood of the painter, analyzing Van Gogh's artistic devices. Schapiro points to the loss of focus, the uncertain movement and orientation and the unstable brush strokes that contrast with the painter's style in earlier pictures. In addition to noting Van Gogh's stylistic decay Schapiro adds that the painter was aware of this decay; thus his unusual attempt at structuring a painting.
WHEN MEYER SCHAPIRO began to analyze modern art in the 1940's, he brought with him the distinguished reputation of a medieval scholar and the enthusiasm for a new project. Now, 30 years later, he has collected ten essays which allow him to interweave artistic theory and specific case studies with great skill and ease. Although his unclear writing and intolerant posture often mar Modern Art, Schapiro's analyses are intriguing and worth reading.