The researcher Werner Hofmann in his book “Foundations of Contemporary Art”, looking at the relationship between the viewer and the artwork, noticed that before the radical changes in art at the beginning of the 20th century, the viewer was in an extremely beneficial, blissful state of ignorance. Turning to the present, we note that even today, looking at another masterpiece of academic painting, a modern museum or gallery visitor feels “comfortable”, calmly peering into a realistic depiction of myths and stories, portraits of kings and court ladies. Admiration for the talent of the creator is followed by a series of familiar and yet exciting questions: how was the master able to portray this or that subject so subtly? To convey the mood and play of shadows? Allocating the allotted three minutes to each picture, the soulful viewer leaves the temple of the arts, feeling one of the initiates, but still very far from this world.
This distancing of art, its aesthetic isolation, are peculiar echoes of the criticized autonomy of the arts — a concept first mentioned in the works of Immanuel Kant. The term “autonomy” implies the presence of its own field of action, independence from the influence of external events. Theorists emphasize: for a long time, the art sphere was an autonomous structure, abstracted from political and social issues.
With the onset of the 20th century and the emergence of changes in the artistic sphere, criticism of autonomy became possible. The main points of criticism were the denial of art as an institution separated from the public space, as well as its disconnection from social reality and the real life of society. It became apparent that art is a much more multi-layered phenomenon with different qualities, thus it is capable of interacting with different areas and spheres of life.
Among the theorists who devoted their works to the study of this concept was the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, one of the main representatives of the Frankfurt School. In 1969, Adorno presented the book Aesthetic Theory, which was a theoretical rethinking of philosophy and art (as well as the philosophy of art). In his research, the theorist questioned the autonomy of art: “The autonomy of art is the result of the formation of a long process, during which the very concept of art was developed — and by no means was it developed a priori. In the most authentic artistic creations, the authority that objects of worship should have once enjoyed in the eyes of the patriarchal families of antiquity has turned into an immanent law of form. The idea of freedom, akin to the principle of aesthetic autonomy, was formed on the basis of relations of power, the generalization of which it was. The same was the case with works of art. The freer they became from external goals, the more fully the power–hierarchical principle of organization underlying them became manifest. But since works of art are always one of their sides turned to society, the power relations rooted in them were also radiated outward.”
Noting the formal nature of autonomy, Adorno argues that in fact art is balancing between direct political engagement and complete isolation from social processes. Despite its heterogeneous character, where “the social character of art prevails over the autonomous character, autonomy is sacrificed, and with it — continuity”. Thus, the author
proves that due to the appeal of art to social and social issues in the 20th century, the concept of autonomy was questioned from the point of view of its institutional isolation.
Another important point of Adorno’s research was the proof of the multi-layered system of art. The author refers to this as “the presence of heterogeneous moments in art”. The theorist claims that the sphere of the artistic is inherent in both political and social character. Each of them manifested itself, pushed out due to social or temporal pressure. Departing from formal features — stylization — art appropriated the new, thereby giving way to new directions. Thus, art becomes directly dependent on social changes, its variations go beyond aesthetic isolation and appropriate a new experience for themselves.
Theodor Adorno’s work was published in 1969, in an era of tremendous changes in the field of art and life. A decade earlier, Alan Kaprow coined a term for a new form of contemporary art, an action or situation that takes place with the participation of an artist, but is not completely controlled by him — happening. Born at the intersection of artistic gesture and direct public participation, happening became one of the first trends in which the audience, society, and the city were directly involved in the creation of art. In parallel, at the same time, other forms of artistic expression, gestures, not limited by the institutional nature of the system, developed. In the 1950s and 1960s, the movement of street art began to develop actively, in which artists used little familiar techniques and spaces to express themselves — a city and an alternative locality.
Since the emergence of street art, artists have turned in their works to a casual passer-by, a person who, perhaps, is not so familiar with the closed system of art, but who is better aware of social issues and social unrest, which most often became the subject of street works. Street art as a current was able to deconstruct the concept of “art autonomy”. The heterogeneity of the artistic here has found its vivid embodiment: art addressing people on their territory, with public urban spaces becoming the fields of expression. The assimilation of the non-institutional space of the wall, as well as the turn towards the processuality of art, and not its formal gallery embodiment, proved the idea of the social character of art, as Theodor Adorno wrote about: “Social productive forces, as well as the production relations of society in a purely formal sense, liberated from their factuality, reappear in works of art, since artistic labor is social labor; his products are always the same”. The works of John Fekner, Lee Quinones, Ernest Pignon-Ernest and other artists were reactions to social and political changes in society. Their drawings became the mirror of modernity, and art assimilated the experience of the streets, transforming the autonomous language of the artistic into a special alternative code. Today street art has largely lost the protest mood that was characteristic of it in the sixties. Despite the active development of the so-called “propaganda” street art, many artists retain the protest mood of their works, reflecting and creating works on the basis of issues important to society.
However, street art does not always take as a basis certain social issues. In the history of street art, there are many examples of when artists turned towards the art of abstraction. Abstract art has more than once become the subject of analysis by theorists and philosophers of art. In 1906, a young German philosopher Wilhelm Worringer brilliantly defended his thesis, the title of which sounded like “Abstraction and Empathy”. In this study, for the first time, an attempt was made to analyze non-object art and give it a theoretical understanding, which later served as an important basis for philosophers and art critics who turned to the topic of abstraction. Worringer argued that abstract art — more precisely, “craving for abstraction” — stands at the beginning of all art, and experiments with abstraction is a search for the primordial and polysemous in art, while the realistic is nothing more than a single, unambiguous, accessible at the first look. Thus, the researcher for the first time introduced the problem of the universality of abstract art, its primitiveness in relation to everything else.
After analyzing this work, the researchers decided that Worringer insisted that abstraction is available only to those peoples who are at the highest stage of cultural development. After all, abstract art is a direct connection with the cosmos, the universal, which can only be grasped by a sophisticated viewer.
This idea is surprisingly similar to what another philosopher and art critic Clement Greenberg wrote about in 1939 in his article “Avant-garde and kitsch”. The author argued that the only authentic art is the art of abstraction, which draws inspiration and strength from itself. This art is universal and free from the everyday semantics: “The search for the absolute led the avant-garde to ‘abstract” or “non-objective’ art and similar poetry”. Art
abstraction, according to Greenberg, exists autonomously and is accessible for understanding only by the cultural, educated part of society. Thus, we can see how the idea of autonomy, closedness of abstract art is traced in completely different studies of theorists of the 20th century.
Indeed, returning to the conversation about the heterogeneity of art in general, it should be noted that abstraction is one of the few areas in which it is difficult to see the artist’s reflection on a particular social or political problem. Nevertheless, more and more contemporary street art artists are turning to abstraction, creating works not only for gallery shows but also for street spaces. American street artist Momo (a pseudonym for a San Francisco street artist) began creating graffiti works in the 1990s. Gradually, the artist switched to abstract images, trying to coincide their creation with a particular situation: after the September 11 terrorist attack, Momo began to post a series of abstract sketches around the city, which, according to him, were intended for children. Bright colors and funny compositions were designed to relieve young people of depression and fear. Similar works were created by the French contemporary street artist Nelio. In his graffiti, the artist experiments with complex geometric compositions and shapes, creating drawings not only in the space of the city, but in abandoned villages, on sheer cliffs and stones. Looking at these works, one can see a completely different kind of art. The geometry of lines and shapes on city streets in disadvantaged areas looks like an otherworldly symbol, a special sign, the meaning of which is not always readable. Most often, the viewer notes the decorative and illustrative quality of the work, which contribute to the reverse process of the autonomization of art, but this time the process of autonomization begins in the field of public art, which from the moment of its inception provided works created at the forefront of social issues.
Clement Greenberg in the aforementioned article argued that the desire for abstraction is characteristic of every person, however, to understand it, one must have a certain cultural and intellectual level — the education providing the ability to reflect. From this point of view, abstract graffiti can be viewed by us as an attempt by artists to contribute to the education of a casual viewer, a passer-by, making a daily route through the city. In this case, the “street” nature of abstraction loses all significance, and the non-institutional space of the wall turns only into a surface used by the artist for his paternalistic purposes.
As Raymond Williams stated in his article, it is the paternalistic approach that is characteristic of the fact that the artist perceives his viewer as a child, a subject who needs to be taught. Thus, street art, using abstraction, loses its institutional independence, non-inclusion and again returns to the system of autonomy.
Abstract street art also has an illustrative, decorative character. Many street artists successfully exhibit in various galleries and museums around the world, and the often abstract works that they present on paper are not much different from those on the streets. Far-fetched reflection and the use of abstraction have become a design technique for artists. The abstract image in the city is an example of the reverse process of autonomization.
Note that the polysemy of art made it possible to use the techniques of the abstract in various spheres of art (let“s cite Oskar Schlemmer”s Triadic Ballet as an example), but it was in the sphere of street art that this idea suffered such a crushing defeat. Instead of the process of Adorno’s “assimilation of experience”, street art chose the path of illustrativeness and autonomy, fencing itself off from the viewer by a completely different wall.
1. Theodor Adorno. Aesthetic Theory (Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 30.
2. Peter Burger. Theory Of the Avant-Garde. Theory and History of Literature (University of Minnesota Press, 2004).
3. Clement Greenberg. Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), pp. 3–21.
4. Werner Hofmann. Grundlagen der modernen Kunst (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1978).
5. Immanuel Kant. Critique of Judgment (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009).
6. Miwon Kwon. Public Art as Publicity (transversal.at, 2002). URL: https://transversal.at/transversal/0605/kwon/en
7. Wilhelm Worringer. Abstraction and Empathy: a contribution to the psychology of style (New York: International Universities Press, 1953), 141 p.