What can be said of the way that the abstract work speaks to us—despite the fact that its “content” is untranslatable into words and concepts—is that in its very inability to speak, the work expresses the sense of alienation from a once-familiar and shared artistic life-world. Is the avant-garde then a tragedy or a happy event in the history of painting?

Many of us have had the experience of gazing at some work in the “Abstract” or “Avant-Garde” section of the local art museum, and feeling at a total loss. Gazing at the violent surges of color in a Pollock, or at Mondrian’s geometric lines hovering against blank backgrounds, we wonder what a work of art that makes no reference to any person, thing, event, or idea could possibly mean. Some wonder at a more or less conscious level whether and how expression is even possible without depiction. Others write off abstract works entirely as false works of art, either because they depict nothing, or because (it’s assumed) they don’t exhibit artistic skill: “My four-year-old could throw paint around like that too; the other night he made a painting a lot like that Pollock, on the carpet, with spaghetti sauce.” By this view, the abstract work of art is an imposter of the art world, and should be identified and prosecuted as such.

Yet an imposter is said to be an imposter only insofar as he is truly “like the real thing.” Putting aside philosophical questions about what qualifies a work as “true art,” what is certain is that the avant-garde work announces itself as a work of art, whether we regard its announcement as genuine or false makes no difference. According to Hans-Georg Gadamer, it shows up in our field of awareness with the same conspicuousness as does the more “traditional” work, that is, not as something that we can pass over indifferently, but as something to be gazed at and in some way dealt with. What is remarkable about non-pictorial paintings—paintings that do not depict anything definite or familiar—is that, despite the fact that they depart from traditional painting by attempting expression without depiction, they nonetheless announce themselves to their audiences as works of art (albeit impolitely). They have the character of art as much as traditional art does because they stand out of the ordinary world of indifferent objects and invite us to dwell with them. Without reference, they have nothing to “say” to us; yet in some way, they address us with the powerful address of art, no matter how we prefer to use that word.

For this reason, Gadamer refers to the abstract painting as a “speechless image.” As Daniel Tate explains in his essay of the same name, for Gadamer “modern art poses the following question: how it is that such works of avant-garde art can ‘exert a claim upon us as powerful and as authoritative as that of the classic or traditional work?’ ” Dr. Tate’s essay explores Gadamer’s response to this question. His thesis is that, according to Gadamer, the avant-garde work of art is not only a communicative event in which we are in some way addressed, but moreover that to “listen” to what the work “says” is to dwell in the particularity of the work itself. The proper approach of interpretation to the avant-garde is not to attempt a translation of the content of the work into words and concepts, but to engage the work on its own utterly unique terms.

The abstract work is therefore symbolic in that, due to its indeterminacy of reference, what it expresses is inextricably bound to the expression itself. Unlike a sign, the symbol does not “refer to something else that would bestow meaning upon it.”[1] Rather, in the case of the symbol there is “an inseparability of visible appearance and invisible significance.”[2] Like a bodily gesture, which “does not point beyond itself to something that would give it meaning” but rather embodies the meaning it presents, the meaning of the work “lies entirely within itself.”[3] Indeterminacy of reference therefore amplifies the symbolic character of the work of art. Since for Gadamer symbol is an essential dimension of art, the indeterminacy of reference which is so obvious in the avant-garde adds to the properly artistic value of the work precisely to the extent that it adds to its symbolic character.

But whatever the special virtues of abstract art, Dr. Tate notes that it reflects a serious problem as well: “[I]n modern painting we encounter the extreme case of an art that no longer speaks a common language within which it becomes possible to share a common meaning.” The modern historical context in which the artist “no longer speaks for the community” is one in which “the shared self-understanding required for this no longer exists.”[4]

In his A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes exactly this inability of modern art to speak a universal language in terms of the historical setting in which avant-garde art arose, in which there is no universally shared understanding of self or of cosmos. He writes that whereas “painters of the past could draw on the publicly understood objects of divine and secular history . . . for a couple of centuries now we have been living in a world in which these points of reference no longer hold for us.”[5] According to Dr. Taylor, our “cosmic imaginary, in other words, our whole background understanding and feel of the world has been transformed” in modernity, and it is due to this transformation that modernity is without a common language for art. Whereas theological language and religious imagery, for instance, have the same resonances and meaningfulness for inhabitants of a Christian life-world, they have not been so reliable to the artist for the past couple hundred years. And Dr. Taylor points out that even confessional modern Christians do not really inhabit the life-world of the Christian cosmos. We may adopt the articles of Christian belief, but Dr. Taylor is concerned “with the way the universe is spontaneously imagined, and therefore experienced. It is no longer usual to sense the universe immediately and unproblematically as purposefully ordered.”[6]

This is significant for our discussion of art because the way that we sense the world “immediately and unproblematically” determines how the references of a work of art appear to us. Even among those who confess religious belief, the naturalistic atmosphere of Western modernity is such that the world does not disclose itself immediately through a Christian lens. Instead, seeing the world through the lens of the cosmos that religious imagery and language imply is something that we do in very limited ways through reflection, meditation, and religious ritual. But, upon exiting the chapel, there again is the life-world of impersonal and empirical presence, not a world saturated with personal presence and spiritual significance. And it makes no difference at all what we confess to believe. The modern, according to Dr. Taylor, may have a Christian mind; but he can not have a Christian imagination.

According to Dr. Taylor, the development of avant-garde art forms took place alongside the universal shift from the life-world of the Christian cosmos to the naturalistic life-world of modernity. Historically then, abstract art arises through necessity and not merely innovativeness. It speaks no universal language because there is no universal language available to it, no shared understanding of the cosmos and one’s place in it, and therefore no artistic means for embodying the artist’s life-world immediately and unproblematically. Beautiful though it is, Michaelangelo’s Last Judgement looks to modern eyes like an obnoxious attempt to invade our peace of mind with the Church’s terrifying doctrines regarding the afterlife. But to one who immediately and unproblematically conceives of his life as precariously in the balance between damnation and salvation—to one for whom this is a taken-for-granted and ordinary part of life and not merely something he calls to mind on Sunday mornings—the invasiveness of the piece does not come from without, but simply captures his own feelings. Questions of doctrine and truth aside, it is perhaps as deeply personal a piece as anything Romanticism ever produced. But because it can no longer be seen that way, according to Dr. Taylor, Romanticism and ultimately abstract art must invent a new language.

In my reading, this is what Dr. Tate means when he writes that “no longer can the painter simply depict familiar subjects in forms that would be readily recognized as a new artistic statement within an established pictorial language.”[7] The point is not primarily that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and today one cannot recognize the references of the pictorial language of the past; that could be solved with casual scholarship. The point is rather that whether we recognize them or not, the images of traditional art no longer speak to us with immediacy. In the nineteenth century, the language of art had to undergo a fundamental change if it was to continue to address its audience at all. The symbolic gesture of modern “abstract” art is therefore not merely an alternative mode of artistic expression, but the “new pictorial language” of painting itself.

That new language is speech-in-speechlessness. Dr. Tate points out that speechlessness after all does not imply that one has nothing to say. What can be said of the way that the abstract work speaks to us—despite the fact that its “content” is untranslatable into words and concepts—is that in its very inability to speak, the work expresses the sense of alienation from a once-familiar and shared artistic life-world. According to Gadamer, the speechlessness of the work itself speaks as a symbol “of the unfamiliarity in which we encounter ourselves and our increasingly unfamiliar world.”[8] Thus the historical setting of the emergence of the avant-garde helps us to see what Gadamer means by saying that even the modern painting “whose mute gaze presents us with such disturbing enigmas remains a kind of recognition.”[9]

This paradox of the avant-garde demands that interpretation approach it from the perspective of 1) what this kind of art, generally, “says” in its speechlessness, and 2) the particularity of the work in question. In neither case can one rely on universal concepts as a means of access to the work. As Dr. Tate writes, “The basic responsibility [of hermeneutics] is just to let the voice of the other be heard as that becomes manifest in and through the work. To this extent, the speechless images of abstract art do not lie beyond the pale of hermeneutic understanding.” As a symbolic gesture which embodies what it presents, the work does not speak through the self-effacement of the universal: “The modern picture is to be looked at and not through.”[10]

Is the avant-garde then a tragedy or a happy event in the history of painting? On the one hand, as we have seen, it amplifies the gestural “symbolic dimension” of art, since it has no self-effacing significance at all. On the other hand, it is exactly because of its non-referential character that it also embodies the “increasing unfamiliarity with the world” which according to Dr. Taylor is characteristic of modernity. Marc Chagall, a modern painter himself (arguably), writes that whereas

For about two thousand years we have been nourished by a reserve of energy which has sustained us and given content to life . . . during the past hundred years this reserve has broken up and its elements have begun to disintegrate. God, perspective, color, the Bible, form, lines, traditions, the so-called humanisms, love, caring, the family, the school, education, the prophets, and Christ Himself have fallen to pieces . . . And little by little our world seems to be a smaller world on which we small ones swarm, clinging to the smallest elements in our nature, until we submerge ourselves in the tiny pieces of nature, even in the atom. Doesn’t this so-called scientific gift of nature, by emptying the soul, limit the source [of art]? Doesn’t it deprive man of even the physical opportunities for calm and quiet? And doesn’t all this deprive his system of any sense of moral direction connected with his life and his creative work?[11]

Clearly it is from the perspective of an artist that Chagall laments the disintegration of the “reserve of energy” which for so long had “sustained us and given content to life,” for it had also given content to art. For this reason, according to Mircea Eliade, “Chagall resisted the temptation to demolish altogether the world of his masters and his ancestors,” and he “never really wanted to build another world from scratch.”[12] And building another world from scratch is exactly what properly modern art must do since, as Dr. Tate writes, the artist “no longer speaks for the community” but rather “forms his own community insofar as he expresses himself.”[13] As a communicative event, the abstract work forms a community insofar as we “respond to the claim that addresses us in the work by trying to understand what it says” and therefore “even where art speaks to us in the unintelligible language of pictorial abstraction, even where it seems to resist communication and refuse recognition, the communicative dimension of art is still affirmed.”[14]

Nonetheless, what Chagall laments is that this “communicative dimension” is doomed to be a self-enclosed sphere. What is created is not an expression of the artist’s self-understanding within a meaning cosmos, but meaning itself exclusively for the sphere of the artist, his work, and his audience. Whereas for Gadamer the work of pictorial abstraction creates community, for Chagall it is instead the locus of shared cosmic loneliness.

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[1] Daniel Tate, “The Speechless Image: Gadamer and the Claim of Modern Painting,” Philosophy Today 45, no. 1/4 (2001): 56-68, p. 62.

[2] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. p. 74.

[3] Tate, “The Speechless Image,” p. 62.

[4] Ibid., p. 63.

[5] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 352.

[6] Ibid., p. 325 (my italics).

[7] Tate, “The Speechless Image,” p. 63.

[8] Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Relevance of the Beautiful” in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 82.

[9] Ibid., p. 74.

[10] Tate, “The Speechless Image,” p. 61.

[11] Marc Chagall, WISA.

[12] Mircea Eliade, Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts, p. 91.

[13] Tate, “The Speechless Image,” p. 63.

[14] Ibid., 64.

The featured image is a painting by Marc Chagall and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The image’s original source is Wikimedia user Rokus Cornelis (who does not necessarily support the views of this essay, nor those of The Imaginative Conservative), and has been slightly modified for color.

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