Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Death Of Hilton Kramer

Abstraction And Empathy
Wilhelm Worringer
Introduction by Hilton Kramer
Elephant Paperbacks

Review by Rory A.A. Hinton

Abstraction And Empathy

I am less interested in Wilhelm Worringer's classic book Abstraction And Empathy and more concerned with Hilton Kramer's introduction to it. However, my indirect interest is not a direct commentary on Worringer's worth. Much has been written about his psychology of style in modern art since it was first written in his 1906 doctoral dissertation, the year before Pablo Picasso painted his El Greco inspired Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon. Kramer's brief introduction is a noteworthy part of that written history, and evidence enough of the book's importance. The turn to the subject in modern art cannot be understood without it.
     My interest centers around two concerns. First, Kramer's reading of this classic text is as classic as it is, and should therefore be read by anyone interested in an influential view on the psychological basis of abstraction in modern art. Second, Kramer's brief introduction presents us with a hermeneutic key for understanding much of his critical work written over a very productive twenty year period for the T.S. Eliot inspired literary journal The New Criterion: from articles like "The Eakins Retrospective" in 1982 to "Does Abstract Art Have A Future?" in 2002.
     This key is the sine qua non for appreciating why Kramer was one of the most notable defenders of modernism in art during the latter half of the twentieth century. It also provides the interpretive basis for his idea that Pop Art was primarily a cultural, and not an artistic, assault on the entire pictorial tradition of modern art (an idea that conveniently renders it unworthy of any sustained critical response by those committed to Eliot's "common pursuit of true judgement"). He did not deny that Pop Art was a movement of note. He just denied it artistic merit, let alone influential longevity (despite the CondĂ© Nast brand of media success that "the Warhol phenomenon" found within the art world, as Kramer so brazenly describes it). Accordingly, Pop Art should be summarily dismissed as merely "the fallout of the 1960s counterculture," and should be understood as such by the artistic aristocracy. The double entendre of Kramer's 1987 obituary "The Death Of Andy Warhol," therefore, is pretty difficult to miss.
     One need only read Wayne Koestenbaum's Andy Warhol (let alone the recent scholarship upon which it is based) to experience serious pause when confronted with Kramer's hermeneutics of dismissal. Koestenbaum's smart biography contributes toward the convincing counterfactual claim that Kramer's Pop Art obit (written in response to the death of its chief representative on February 22, 1987) is a fallout of his own commitment to a conception of modern art that finds its basis in his reading of Abstraction And Empathy. And it is precisely this conception of modern art that Pop Art (especially in the work of Warhol) called into artistic question and left seriously wanting. I don't deny that Kramer's idea is noteworthy. I just deny it critical merit, at least as a criterion (old or new) used to dismiss Pop Art's aesthetic importance.
     What is Kramer's key? Answering this question requires a brief description of the raison d'ĂȘtre of Worringer's book. Worringer argues that the history of modern art is the history of artists working within a dynamic tension between two volitional tendencies: the will to empathy, and the will to abstraction. To be empathetic is to experience a settled confidence between the human species and the phenomena of the external world. Empathetic artists derive their sense of the beautiful from being able to personally identify with the objects of their artistic representation, thereby gaining a sense of personal identity in the process. They are realists: they have read their space, felt at home within it, and have naturally rendered it in their paintings. Renaissance art is realist in precisely this sense.
     In contrast, to be abstracted is to have experienced "the dread of space," to have felt alienated from it, and to have sought one's identifiable sense of the beautiful through less than realistic renderings (as exemplified by Egyptian, Byzantine, and Abstract Expressionist art). Worringer claims that the primal artistic impulse to abstract from perceptual reality is the result of the psychological need to achieve personal identity in the face of the subjective "confusion and obscurity of the world-picture." Worringer states: "The primal artistic impulse has nothing to do with the rendering of nature. It seeks after pure abstraction as the only possibility of repose ... It is the consummate expression, and the only expression of which man can conceive, of emancipation from all the contingency and temporality of the world-picture." Plato rears his mimetic head even here, in form(s) and in content: art is the existential process of producing an expressive product in response to the primal need to achieve identifiable certainty in an uncertain world (wherefore art thou, Aristotle?).
     While empathy and abstraction are, in principle, mutually exclusive tendencies, the history of modern art demonstrates a prolonged tension between them. You cannot understand Cubism as a movement, for example, without knowing about this tension. In fact, Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon is a first rate example of a painting that embodies it. Picasso confronts his own alienation of spacial depth by abstracting from the empathetic tradition of natural representation. He accomplishes this by using two-dimensional means to express three-dimensional dread. Cubism as therapy.
     The significane of Jackson Pollock's Full Fathom Five (1947) can be expressed in similar fashion. Pollock painted it to satiate an artistic need that is "the deepest and ultimate essence of all aesthetic experience." According to Worringer, this is the need for self-alienation. And self-alienation, so the story goes, is a necessary stage on life's contingent way toward determining self identity. To describe this painting as the result of "creative accident" only serves to show the psychological impulse behind it (and in Pollock's case 'psychological' was cashed out in Jungian terms). It is also not without note that its name derives from the following line from Shakespeare's The Tempest: "Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes." Abstract Expressionism as therapy.
     The turn to the subject in modern art (from Picasso to Pollock), therefore, owes much to Worringer's psychology of style. It provides the basis for the claim that the difference between these two artists is only a difference in artistic degree, but not a difference in psychological kind: you abstract from scandalous space because it is something that cannot be empathetically faced.

Mildred's Dread

     Much of the content of the preceding five paragraphs owes its existence to Kramer's penchant for sympathetic commentary. His introduction alone is worth the price of the book. In fact, it was his reputation as a modern defender of conservative high culture that initially motivated me to read Abstraction And Empathy. My thinking was that if someone like Kramer thought Worringer was worthy of his critical attention (at least worthy enough to write an introduction), then I was willing to put forth the effort to understand why "[f]ew doctoral dissertations have come to occupy as important a place in the history of modernist art and criticism" as it does, and why it has such "enduring importance" as one of the "classic texts in the literature of modernism." 
     While reflecting upon how the relation between representation and abstraction relates to the question of whether abstract art has a future (especially in light of how the Minimalist movement determined its relative demise), Kramer writes the following in 2002: "As all of us know (but sometimes forget), abstract art - especially abstract painting - derives, aesthetically, from representational painting. Whatever the degree of purity abstraction can be said to attain, it cannot make claim to a virgin birth. If abstract painting could be said to have a genetic history, its DNA would instantly reveal its debt to ... the aesthetic vitality of representational painting." 
     According to Kramer's reading, empathy and abstraction are "the two fundamental aesthetic impulses known to human culture." Hence the enduring importance of Abstraction And Empathy (at least for Kramer). His reading of this classic text, and the central place of these two impulses in that reading, is the hermeneutic key behind the genetic history of his vitality and influence as an art critic. In particular, this key not only explains his reason for thinking why abstract painting was representationally derivative, but more importantly why Pop Art gets summerly dismissed as nothing but a cultural by-product. 
     How does Pop Art call this idea into artistic question and leave it seriously wanting? The logic behind Kramer's hermeneutics of dismissal is in the form of a disjunctive syllogism: art is either A or E (or both). If art is P (Pop Art, say), then it is neither Abstract nor Empathetic. Therefore, Pop Art is not art (despite its name). It must be something else ("the fallout of the 1960s counterculture," say). The issue here is not so much Kramer's logic, but the semantic framework that gives it sense. If you reject Kramer's inclusive premise ("art is either A or E"), then the most that can be said is that Pop Art is nothing but the artistic casualty of Kramer's critical commitment to Worringer's psychology of style. Kramer's premise can and should be rejected, along with the idea that it produces and the framework within which it functions.
     By rejecting the representational form and the psychological content of Kramer's modern framework, Pop Art replaces one hermeneutic key with another one. After Pop Art there are many-if-any keys (the more the merrier). You pay your money, you choose your key, and you open whatever door suits your artistic fancy. Kramer did not get Pop Art's aesthetic importance because he chose a key that assumes too much and delivers too little. It assumes too much by implicitly endorsing a subjectivist interpretation of modern art, despite postmodern critiques to the contrary (especially in the work of Martin Heidegger), and it delivers too little by not giving Pop Art the critical attention it rightly deserves (especially in the work of Andy Warhol). It lacks critical merit in precisely this sense. 
     Kramer disparaged that the most distinguishing characteristic of the prodigious outpouring of "commentary, homage, and celebrity-worship" found in the obituaries written in response to Warhol's death was "the way it confined itself to the terms which Warhol himself had set for the discussion of his life and work ... It was as if no language but Warhol's own - the language of hype - could be expected to have any meaning when it came to explaining just what it was that made him important." This disparaging refrain can be found in Kramer's further observation of the general tendency of the obituaries to "take refuge in [Warhol's] fame, in his personality, in his business affairs and his entourage, even in his wig, and leave the art more or less unexamined ... It turned out that almost no one could bring any conviction to the task of specifying what that achievement had consisted of."
     Warhol's achievement manifested itself in the very things in which Kramer finds fault. Arthur Danto correctly points out that one of Warhol's great artistic achievements was his creation of a "new kind of life for the artist to lead." To speak of his fame, his personality, his business affairs, his entourage, and even his wig, was the clearest instance of "specifying what [Warhol's] achievement had consisted of." By uniting art with a life stylishly led, Warhol overcame the historic tension between Worringer's volitional tendencies by simply ignoring them (with deep superficiality). Instead, he simply created a new criterion: art is what you can get away with. With this new criterion Warhol forced his friends and foes alike to use "the terms which Warhol himself had set for the discussion of his life and work." This is nothing new. The Philosophy Of Andy Warhol is as full of linguistic hype as Abstraction And Empathy. It all comes down to the brand of hype you use, and how much of it you can get away with. Like Pablo and Jack, Andy got away with much. 
     Warhol was not the only "cultural" casualty of Kramer's hype. Jean-Michel Basquiat was similarly dismissed. Kramer's inability to make modern sense of Basquiat's work forced him to focus his attention on the "liberal left-wing types" who "needed to make a bow in that direction (the disadvantaged, minorities, and so on)" as the culturally correct basis for why people took Basquiat so seriously. Since his work was neither abstract nor empathetic, how else could you understand why people liked Basquiat so much? Kramer's modern modus operandi is as clear as it is consistent: when in doubt, use the hermeneutics of dismissal and go cultural. In fact, Kramer's assessment of Basquiat's work is less than dismissive: "His contribution to art is so minuscule as to be practically nil." It might be practically nil (Kramer obviously had no use for him), but it certainly is not financially nil. Basquiat's Dos Cabezes (1982) sold for just over 7 million USD ($7,082,500.00) on November 10, 2010 at Christie's in New York. This is a gigantic price to pay for something so apparently minuscule. At least when it comes to the buying habits of the high culture that Kramer so desperately sought to create and promote, Andy and Jean-Michel had the last laugh.

Dos Cabezes (1982)
Jean-Michel Basquiat


     The artistic aristocracy to which Kramer belonged is better served by interpreting Warhol as one of their own. It serves Kramer's cause to realize that his hyped dismissal of Warhol's significance for high culture makes his criterion not-so-new. If any criterion is new now, its the one that follows from the following argument: if you take care of artistic freedom by promoting the idea that democracy is for society but not for culture, then the market will determine the "common pursuit of true judgement" through the dynamic tension between two all consuming tendencies: the will to buy, and the will to sell. These tendencies are based on taste. Taste is context still, and the context continually changes.
     By conflating fine and commercial art Andy created a new basis for an independent high culture, one that understands (and ultimately rejects) the modern assumption upon which the distinction between fine art and commercial art was based. He creates a new independence by by-passing the psychological component as a motivational impulse behind modern art, and replaces it with a capitalist one. If Warhol is right that good art is good business, then it follows that beauty is in the hand of the objective consumer, and not in the eye of the subjective beholder. Capitalism is an artistic ideal because it is a moral one. 
     The question is not whether an independent high culture is possible after Warhol's work. The question is whether those who have long associated themselves with the old high culture are willing to adopt Warhol's work as a model for the new artistic aristocracy at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This new high culture does not reject "commercial entertainment" as something beneath it (as Kramer maintained). It celebrates the "commercial" within "entertainment," uniting art with economics as the new conceptual basis for an independent high culture in the postmodern art world. 

Hilton Kramer

Hilton Kramer: March 25, 1928 - March 27, 2012.

Andy Warhol. The Philosophy Of Andy Warhol: From A To B And Back Again. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
Hal Foster. "Andy Paperbag." London Review Of Books. March, 2002.
Hilton Kramer. "The Eakins Retrospective." The New Criterion. September, 1982.
Hilton Kramer. "The Death Of Andy Warhol." The New Criterion. May, 1987. 
Hilton Kramer. "Does Abstract Art Have A Future?" The New Criterion. December, 2002.
Hilton Kramer, Roger Kimball. Counterpoints. Ivan R. Dee, 2007.
Martin Heidegger. "The Origin Of The Work Of Art." Off The Beaten Track. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Susan Sontag. "Fascinating Fascism." New York Review Of Books. February 06, 1975.
Tamra Davis. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. Arthouse Films, 2010.
Tony Scherman, David Dalton. POP: The Genius Of Andy Warhol. Harper, 2009.
Wayne Koestenbaum. Andy Warhol. Viking (Penguin Group), 2001.
Wilhelm Worringer. Abstraction And Empathy. Ivan R. Dee, 1997.