Modern art’s greatest search is for a definition of itself. The meta-question—What is art?—often overwhelms the specific questions of art theory, like the nature of beauty, the use of symbol, and the like. Certainly most of us who have wandered through rooms of concatenated geometric shapes, blank canvases, piles of trash, and splatters of paint have felt, and maybe even entertained, the uncouth question: Why is this art?
Chelsea’s Agora Gallery is running a show by an artist who, all unawares, is bringing that question to the fore yet again. Aelita Andre is four years old, and has been playing with paint since she was nine months old. The Gallery’s official page states that Andre “created her first significant body of work before reaching the age of two.”
Her parents, both artists, call her an abstract expressionist. The gallery website gushes that she “creates large tableaux of abstract forms as she swirls, spreads, and pours paint across the canvas,” which she enhances with “found objects” like toys and twigs. The art world apparently agrees with this ecstatic assessment, as she has sold paintings at exhibitions around the globe for tens of thousands of dollars, and all of the pieces at the Agora have already sold.
Looking at Andre’s work is like staring at a screen saver made of random melting colors: mostly banal but occasionally striking. The screen-saver randomness turns out to be what’s valuable about her art, judging by her critics’ constant praise of her spontaneity and sense of play. Lest anyone question the artistic merit of the work by pointing out that she is in fact just mucking around as any child does in pre-school art hour, her press assures us that her work opens “a window into the emancipated creative subconscious mind of a child.”
All this enthusing reveals the answer that certain schools in modern art have given to their defining question. What is art? Art is irrationality.
Phrased more positively, we could say these artists want an art without artifice, without the conventional tricks that painters use to make a canvas look like something it’s not. William Congdon describes his time in Jackson Pollock’s circle as a communal effort to get past the “thing-ness of things,” to experience the raw being of an object and communicate it to others. The immediacy and power of their art was infectious, and gave abstract expressionism its explosive growth and staying power.
But Congdon recognized a destructive weakness in the abstract movement that was philosophical, not stylistic. All the members of his circle denied that there is any real meaning in life, the universe, and everything. They longed with Sartre to commune with the unique being of ordinary objects, but ultimately recognized that life is nothing more than the random confluence of material forces. Getting past the thing-ness of things began idealistically and ended nihilistically, as they discovered that behind the unrepeatable being of a thing is . . . nothing. Like Democritus, they found only “atoms and the void.”
The New York School’s nihilism led to a suspicion of human rationality. If getting behind the thing-ness of a thing reveals only emptiness, then so be it—if our minds can’t stop searching for greater meaning, that’s just faulty wiring in the brain, an evolved biological trait that helped humans survive. To survive now, fully aware of life’s meaninglessness, requires shutting down the brain’s vestigial longing for more. The key to art, then, is the key to life: ignore the mind’s frenetic striving and just experience. To live truly is to live without reason.
Andre is the unwitting heiress of this philosophical tradition. Art that prizes pure experience seeks to escape the traps of reason, and what better way to do so than with an artist who herself has not yet attained her full rational prowess? An adult must bring all his rational powers to bear in order to paint irrationally; a four-year-old just has to mash a paint tube.
The art world uses Andre for its own self-gratification. She will likely develop prodigious artistic skills as she ages, but it is not her skills that her connoisseurs desire; they want to experience pure irrationality, and her works come closer to making that possible than any adult artist’s. While her defenders claim to prize the creative intentionality of her works, this fig leaf fails to cover the irrationality of the specific qualities they laud: spontaneity, play, subconscious expression, and the like.
The drive for irrationality has also led to a spate of animal artists, whose works have been featured at eminent galleries and sold throughout the world. Congo the chimpanzee made headlines in 2005 after three of his paintings sold for $25,000 at auction, while the accompanying Renoir went unsold. Tillamook Cheddar is a Jack Russell terrier whose work consists, unsurprisingly, of hyperactive claw marks and paw prints. Other examples abound, from Ruby the elephant to Gabi and Premija the dolphins.
Art is stuck. Dolphin squiggles still get a laugh in most parts of the world and even Aelita Andre might be just a fad, but they are not aberrations. By the post-nihilistic criterion of abstract expressionism, Pollock, Andre, and Congo are equally artists, and their works can be ranked only according to subjective taste.
The debilitating absence of meaning in contemporary art can only be healed by returning to what is highest in man and most characteristic of him, what separates him from the beasts and makes art possible in the first place: reason. If art is ever to escape the prison of irrationality, it must undergo a philosophical renewal—artists must be set free from atoms and the void.
Gabriel Torretta, OP is a summer fellow at First Things and is studying for the priesthood in the Dominican Order.
4-year-old Aelita Andre gets her own NY art show, sells paintings for $27K
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