Have you ever heard of the name Stewart Davis? How about Clarence Weinstock? Well if these names are familiar to you, you may be aware of the dialectical back and forth between them regarding their views about abstract art and representational art. Davis was a painter whose work tended towards abstraction, even though he rejected the art-for-art’s sake position. He addressed the economic condition of American artists during the period of the Depression, and was a prominent figure in the Artist’s Union.
Weinstock, assistant editor of New Masses and subsequent editor of the Artists Union bulletin, published by the WPA federal art project group in 1934, had his own opinion about abstract art that contradicted those of Davis- while expressing his support of representational art. This exchange sheds some light into left-wing artistic debates in the 1930s in the United States. Davis’ introduction to the catalogue of an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February to March 1935 states his defensive stance of abstract art. Davis’ essay was placed in Art Front, by then magazine editor Clarence Weinstock (vol. 1, no 4, New York, April 1935).
Weinstock shot back with a response stating his position, which claimed that figurative art alone could adequately address the conflicts of the modern world. I am sure at some point in your life (if you enjoy looking at art) you have asked yourself while looking at an abstract piece, what is this saying? Or what is it supposed to mean? For me being an artist that enjoys looking at art, and who understands it, I have asked myself this question numerous times as I view an abstract or semi- abstract piece. This is normal I’ve come to realize, because to understand abstract art one has to understand how abstract artists view their medium of expression.
Davis, in defining abstract art highlights that the definition would vary, depending on each artist’s opinion as to what abstract art is to them; however he says that there is a general concordance of opinion that supports the generative idea of abstract art as a living thing that changes, moves and grows like a living organism. This outlook on art far exceeds that of any that I have ever heard before, and one that is important to remember when talking about any piece of art, abstract or representational. To an extent it defines how many artists see their work- and shows the personal value that it has to the artist.
Weinstock retorted by flipping the script a little, saying that ‘any painting may be considered abstract, at a certain stage of analysis’. His opinion here has some truth to it, where in that stage only the color-form categories are being highlighted for study. He furthermore stated that even the most abstract painting could be seen as representational to certain viewers, whether in simplicity or complexity based on the person’s perception of arbitrary space relations. His take is very compelling and adds a very different outlook on the perception of works of art.
Weinstock in his rebuttal of Davis’ opinions made some very exceptional assertions, that makes this debate one that will forever go on. At any rate, the battles of words over the years between the ideas of abstract artists and representational artists have helped to evolve our beloved craft. Now in the 21st century we see a culmination of ideas that pair both the usage of abstract and representational art to create new works of art, that cohesively intertwine the alluring aesthetics of both mediums of expression.
This cohesive relationship is seen widely in graphic design and digital illustration. We see that as the world advances technologically artists have evolved as well, and discussions are not so much now about the contradictions between the artistic expressions, but the fusion between them that will unlock ultimately a new frontier in art in the future.