Essay on Art in the 20th Century
I just read a speech of Werner Haftmann (1) wherein he talks about the interrelation between modern painting and the changes in man's self-conceptions and his concepts about the world that had occurred in the 20th century.
A new world view: things are energy
In the 20th century humanity gained knowledge that totally changed its outlook on the world; the worst wars that ever happened, political systems were created, that brought man utmost freedom but at the same time existential anguish, humanitiy's whole idea man of the world was turned around completely.
What people previously had considered firm realities - the tree, the table, the house - all of a sudden became relativized by new scientific knowledge, formally firm things now were seen as consisting of intangible energy fields, of atoms, molecules, electrons, and the energy contained within defining shape.
A blooming cherry tree that earlier sufficed to be seen as just that, suddenly became the manifestation of larger and more general phenomena: the waxing (and eventually waning) in life, genetic processes, etc. To the interest in static, firm things, the interest in what IS, another concern was added: that in dynamic processes and energetic truth.
A new language: abstract art
The representative (realistic) painting engages in examining the condition or state of objects. But in order to represent these newly discovered dynamic and energetic processes a new language had to be found, and finally was found in abstract painting. This is why there are abstract paintings that carry representational titles: the artist was not seized by the external appearance in form, but rather by the inner dynamic processes, that he or she then depicted.
In this context it is important to understand that modern thinking is a combination of wide awake, logical intelligence on one side, and of deep intuition on the other. One tends to assume that scientists do nothing but make logical conclusions, nevertheless the quanta leaps of insight, the important, the fundamental discoveries would never have happened without intuition.
In abstract art an artist combines both capacities and above all by means of his or her intuition to feel within, can empathize with things and objects, and therefore grasp their internal, invisible structure.
Haftmann says that modern art is indefinitely cerebral (regarding its means) on one side, and on the other indefinitely meditative (regarding its content).
Modern painting is studio painting - it is not being created out in nature, in the jubilation of appearances, but rather in the studio, in the cubicle, in a process of industrious manipulation out of meditation and memory.
"I do not seek, I find"
At the same time the modern art is oriented forwards, is it a sort of "freedom forwards", a process of finding. Picasso's quotation "I do not seek, I find" expresses this crucial point: if the artist was seeking, he must have known something previously, a goal however darkly suspected. To "find" however implies perfect ingeniousness, the basically experimental character of the process of creation.
Insights made accessible through art
Why does the artist embark on this adventure of finding, and why do people crave for art? In each and everyone of us, who we are so full of cerebral knowledge, things unconscious and only vaguely sensed exist. And man longs for touching just this something, so that it becomes conscious/known and thus part of his active vigor.
The artist goes after this "something" just like a hunter who pulls into wilderness. And in his works he brings back the prey in order to make it available to society.
The insights that he or she found are accessible to the spectator through the work of art. This is why the visitor at an exhibition should approach art just as openly as the artist approaches the world; not with an attitude of seeking, that will always only bring back confirmations of the already previously known, but rather with an attitude of finding - with openness, an asking curiosity, a loving expectation.