Art & Aesthetics Art Blog
It doesn't seem like a hundred years ago that Wilhelm Worringer published Abstraction and Empathy (Abstraktion und Einf_hlung). His thesis on the psychology of style is a primer on modernism that has influenced artists from Kandinsky onward. Written just after Cezanne painted his "Bathers" and a year before Picasso's "Les Demoiselles," it marked the shift in the arts from academic towards the primitive and linear styles rediscovered in artifacts like African tribal masks and Japanese woodcut prints. It anticipated Cubism and Art Deco too. It's a freeze-dried view of the organic nature of things.
This book challenged my perspective on abstract art. I take a scientific view of natural phenomena whereas Worringer opts for intuition and metaphysics claiming that any art which merely imitates the visible world does so to elicit empathy from the observer - an "objectified self-enjoyment," or what we might today call "wrapping one's head around" something. Supposedly, any society with such a projective world view is complacent in their environment - too comfortable with their own bad selves. He further contends that insecure peoples living in hostile surroundings develop an artistic volition based on a "spiritual dread of space." This fear leads to an aversion of the third dimension: depth. But certain cultures and civilizations transcend the sensory world by making art that is an "inorganic crystallization" of the spiritual world, one that provides an object with "material individuality and closed unity." Hence, art becomes a rigid simulacrum constrained to a single plane. Wow, I did not see that coming. It's like we can't believe our eyes so we iron out our skin into one flat surface and "see" only what we touch.
The dividing line between empathic art (mimesis) and abstraction separates the Western mindset of Classical Greece and Rome (also the Renaissance) from Eastern mysticism as seen in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Gothic tectonics, as well as Christian and Islamic decoration. I suspect Worringer's views favor the psychological leanings of Jung's archetypes over Freud's libido; or the alienated philosophy of Schopenhauer over the logical axioms of Wittgenstein. Worringer's ideas have even been applied to the literature of Proust and T. S. Eliot. I might look for a musical analogy between classical and jazz, but all music is abstract.
Favoring the experiential over the unknowable (a priori), I consider abstract art - the extraction of essence from form - to be an intellectual endeavor. Nuh-uh, says Worringer: It's strictly intuitive. That's always a red flag for me therefore I must report a flaw in his theory. To wit:
In his depiction of space-time as a necessary evil, Worringer posits that even the sculptural (3D) arts should "purify" an external object down to its absolute value. So far, so good. He deems Egypt's ancient pyramids - memorials to the supernatural forces that shape the human psyche - as the perfect form. He vigorously pursues this conclusion citing pyramid power as "the perfect example of all abstract tendencies," the ultimate construct for "divesting the cubic of its agonizing quality" and being the most "consistent imaginable fulfillment of this endeavor" - the so-called material individualization and closed unity. Wrong!
Here's the rub. Given the stated purpose and criteria of his argument, the perfect form would have to be the tetrahedron - a three-sided pyramid, not four! For Worringer to overlook this logical conclusion is astonishing. A tetrahedron, the geodesic building block of simple linear elegance and spatial economy, is one of the most spiritually inspired constructs in the material world -- the right tool for this job. Methinks it just didn't fit the intent that Worringer ascribes to the ancients (and who knows what they were thinking?) It's a glaring inconsistency that subverts his otherwise impressive theory. It happens.
Still, I concede that it does not diminish Worringer's worthy exposition or his legacy. Any theory, especially one as wide in scope as his, will likely falter in the light of new evidence and constant scrutiny, but Abstraction and Empathy, in its bold investigative nature, transcends the mere correctness or incorrectness of a few details. This landmark treatise, which delimits the aesthetics of art from the platitudes of natural beauty, is as entertaining as it is informative.