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The good-enough artist on the Ladder of Abstraction

December 13, 2009

The ‘ladder of  abstraction’ is a continuum that stretches between the specific and the extremely general. The ladder has 4 distinct levels; abstractions (theoretical and imaginary), broad concepts , groupings and hard-core specifics. ( ‘Abstraction’ here has nothing to do with, like, you know, ‘abstract’ as the opposite of ‘realistic‘.  The ladder of abstraction explains how you get Elsie the cow and farmer Brown into the White House just by stretching  conceptual levels.

The ladder of abstraction can ascend ( or descend) like this:

1. Bessie the cow

2. cattle assets

4. the economy

or this:

1. Aesthetics

2. Metropolitan Museum (or  the Los Angeles Art Museum)

3. Artists in  New York City (or LA)

4. Art student

All art is made for someone to look at.  A really interesting thing is how artists gets people to look at their particular artwork.  Where they start from is not as interesting as the incremental changes that become parts of objects .  The ‘ladder of abstraction’ is interesting to me because its logic levels can describe the territory between the bad artists and the good-enough ones. The good-enough artist and the no-good artist start at the same place and diverge somewhere else. The divergence doesn’t begin with ideas (most of the ideas that make up contemporary art have been in circulation since 1870) and have nothing to do with originality (there no such thing).  The differences have to do with usage. One of the factors that separate the so-so artists from the good-enough ones is percentages: what percentage of the current thing in play is self-developed as opposed to imitative?

A friend of mine defines the not bad/not okay artist as someone who’s

a. more interested in techniques than an ideas.

b. aversive to risk-taking.

3. whose entire involvement in artmaking  is focused on HOW rather than WHY.

My friend has had a number of studio assistants and draws them exclusively from this pool.

Although many artists are terrific at making things, the good ones are often totally disinterested in HOW and only concerned with WHY. The good-enough artist makes work that devours ideas.  The work is good-enough to look at and the most interesting thing about it is how it keeps all the idea’s elements in play; mixing, timing, combinations.

Here’s one example of a good enough artist;  Salvador Dali.

Dali was a prodigiously intelligent, technically gifted and ambitious artist; the idea of melting clocks requires an intensely risky imagistic leap of faith.  Dali exhausted his mine of ideas half-way thru his career.  At that point Dali and transformed innovation into repertoire, falling from the top of the ladder straight to the bottom where he met his imitators battling to rise up to the Dalian heights.

Dali imitators live with Bessie the cow on the lowest rung of the ladder of abstraction.   They colonize Dali’s original leap to a high level of abstraction but lack velocity. As painters they are technical wizards recreating the look of his work while reinforcing its staleness.

You can’t become a better or even good-enough artist by working within someone else’s parameters, the whole point lies in driving up the conceptual percentages.  Originality is not a requirement; what important is permutations and risk.  Risk ratchets up the conceptual ante propelling the object upward on the ladder.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2009 8:46 pm

    I agree with everything you say here except the fact that a good artist can be wholly focused on “why” and completely disinterested in “how.” Put in their proper place, the technical questions of “how” are absolutely necessary servants to the insatiable curiosity that fuels the “why”. Neglect either, and the artwork will suffer.

    • December 13, 2009 10:45 pm

      I agree with you to a certain extent.
      I think ‘HOW’ matters more to people who fabricate their own work.
      Artists who don’t fabricate chose materials they think are best suited for the idea but after that, HOW is someone else’s problem; the studio assistant, the fabricator. The relationship to their work is cerebral rather than physical.

      Naturally an object carved from wood has a different feel than one that’s cast. Numerous artists have their work made in several mediums because its the passage of the idea thru the materials that matters to them; ‘why’ trumps ‘how.

  2. December 15, 2009 2:43 am

    Maybe we’re saying the same thing in different words here.

    I keep coming back to Jeff Koons, and the fact that I think he’s deeply concerned with HOW in spite of the fact that he’s not spending his days in a studio making objects. There is still a kind of process in designing a piece and then working cooperatively with other people to create it. As long as Koons is highly invested in the physical forms of his work, I think HOW will continue to be vitally important to him.

    Am I misinterpreting you terribly here?

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