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AN ESSAY ON ABSTRACTION AND EMPATHY

Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style, Wilhelm Worringer 1908.

‘Let us recapitulate: The original artistic impulse has nothing to do with imitation of nature. This impulse is in search of pure abstraction as the sole possibility of finding rest amidst the confusion and obscurity of the image of the world, and it creates a geometric abstraction starting with itself, in a purely instinctive manner. It is the realized expression, and the sole expression conceivable for man, of the emancipation from any arbitrariness and any temporality of the image of the world. But soon this impulse tends to rip out the individual thing from the exterior world, which retains as its main interest its obscure and disconcerting connection with this outside world, and so tries to get closer to it through artistic restitution of its materials individuality, to purify this individual thing of everything that is life and temporality in it, to make it as much as possible independent both from the surrounding world and from the subject of contemplation, which does not want to enjoy in it the vitality that is common to both, but the necessity and the legitimacy where this impulse can find refuge from its connection with ordinary life, in the only abstraction to which it can aspire and which it can attain. Restitution of the finite material individuality is both important and possible underneath the surface boundaries but also in the intermingling of artistic presentation with the rigid world of the crystalo-geometric: namely, the two solutions that we could observe. Anyone who understands his own solutions in the light of all their presuppositions can no longer speak of "these charming childish mumblings of stylization."

Now, all these momentums that we have just analysed, and which revealed themselves as so many aspects of the need for abstraction, are what our definition wants to gather and summarize with the help of the notion of "style," and what it wants to oppose as such to any Naturalism that results from the need for Einfühlung [empathy].

Because the need for Einfühling and the need for abstraction appeared to us as the two poles of man's artistic sensitivity in as much that it can be the object of pure esthetic appreciation. These two needs are antithetical, they exclude each other, and the history of art never ceases to display the continual confrontation between the two tendencies.

An Exerpt From: Ferrier, Jean-Louis, Director and Yann le Pichon, Walter D. Glanze [English Translation]. Art of Our Century, The Chronicle of Western Art, 1900 to the Present. New York: Prentice-Hall Editions. 1988. p. 94]

Style in art is more than a transformation of the day-to-day complexity of observation into design. It also presents us with a depth of awareness that gives us a glimpse of how our perception can be modified to show us alternative ways of sensing objects and events. For most of us, in day-to-day life, all the objects that surround us are not thought to contain elements of alternative visualisation. We awaken each day and call to mind our learned knowledge to allow us to go about our business without having to re-evaluate every encounter we make. We know, from information acquired when we were young, what the objects and events in our immediate surrounding look like and what their use is, and most objects take on a background presence in our experience of the passing days. We don't get up in the morning and look to the glass we use to get a drink of water in any other way than that of its usefulness in allowing us to quench our thirst. The simple glass just takes its place as a background object within our requirements for sustenance, and perhaps only the artist, looking at the empty glass, will become aware that hidden behind all the great details such background objects possess is a sensation of uncertainty. This sensation is heightened for the artist by natures ability to intensify our awareness for sights, shapes, sounds and movements. The morning sunlight will, perhaps, pass through the glass and fall upon the surface of the table were the glass stands, and our artist will look at the reflections and the spectrum of colours that are revealed by this event. Our artist will, perhaps, bring learned knowledge of the spectrum of light to his, or her, understanding of what they see, but the glass itself will hold more meaning to the artist in that all this knowledge serves to hide a sensation of style that, in itself, is only in the mind. The artist, seeking as they should an intuitive insight in all things, might begin to wonder as to a depth of the power to this simple image to entice a sense of style that is the basis of wonderment from the mind, and in a metaphysical illogical way an experience of uncertainty as to the nature of how to conceive of this event will take over from the logic of day-to-day assurance.

The glass becomes a catalyst for contemplation and our artist will, perhaps, set to paint a picture of this glass, or write a sonnet to its wonderment, or compose music inspired by the 'singing' of the crystalline structure of our glass in the light. The resulting art object, whatever it may be, now brings to our idea of a simple drinking glass new insight. A more profound awareness for drinking glasses becomes the subjective nature of the painting, the poem or the music, and we look, read and listen in wonderment at a work of art, but here in lies a strangeness in what has happened. A transformation has occurred between the reality of the uncertainty of the experience that the artist encountered in the glass, and the art object that results from the artists attempt to give this experience expression. The artist makes a work of art that is not, nor could it ever reproduce the reality of the experience. In truth the art object has, by the very nature of our ability to impose a learned idea of what we see over the artists work, destroyed any uncertainty that the artist wanted to draw to our attention. We come along and look at, read or listen to a work of art that has become an object that, contrary to popular belief, will no longer portray what the artist encountered in the real world. What we are now faced with is an object that directs our thoughts away from the reality of what confronts us. We look into an imaginary space, or discern an artificial arrangement of sounds, and our powers of observation cannot, in this way, reproduce the reality of the uncertainty felt in the presence of any object or event. What the artist has done is transform their experience of the drinking glass into a work of art, and, presumably, in doing this the artist tried to reveal a profound sensual awareness for this object but, in this transformation, the artist removed the reality of paint and canvas, or words, or sounds, and created a model of an imaginary object. Now, this imaginary object works to direct our thoughts away from sensing the reality of what confronts us towards an experience of an image of a drinking glass transformed into a work of art. The real empty drinking glass held the reality to provoke a more profound awareness from our artists mind, and the artist found this simple object was attuning their thoughts to this inner experience, but, in trying to portray this experience, our artist has removed the reality that allowed this sensation to be felt in the mind. The artist has imposed their view over the reality of an object made of paint and canvas - or words or sounds - and this has destroyed the profound reality of paint and canvas - or words and sounds. The reality of any object is a direct sensation and cannot be translated into another form. You cannot paint a picture of a direct sensation of a glass of water because the direct sensation of your picture is that of paint and canvas and not the image it depicts. The image removes the direct sensation and this works to suppress the wonderment of the experience. It seems that, to get a glimpse of this insight, we have to be in direct contact with the reality of what confronts us, and when an object stands out from the mundane day-to-day dullness our learning imposes over all things, this wonderment of the reality of all things comes to mind.

We become complacent as to this sensation of wonderment in all things by the daily grind of waking up and projecting our learned ideas over what we see. We don't look in wonderment upon all things and this sensation only returns to mind when a real event - like sunlight passing through a drinking glass - rekindles an alternative view. That is when the day-to-day dullness is disturbed and we become aware that even the mundane is more noticeable. Our day-to-day ideas are brushed aside, and, for a short time, our mind is open to an older way of sensing without learned understanding suppressing the experience. We find ourselves in possession of a way of sensing that has become buried at the back to mind by our learned way of classifying and categorising all we see and do. This is what our simple drinking glass has done for our artist. The glass has draw his, or her, attention to the uncertainty of its mundane nature that, through learned understanding, has, day-after-day, been used to place the drinking glass into a way of thinking that reduced the sense of wonderment that all things possess. The glass, by being placed in the sunlight has, through it's reflective qualities, created a visual display that propelled its place in the mundane reality of day-to-day awareness to a more profound position. The sensation of wonderment in the glass become more noticeable, but even though this sensation exists in all things we very rarely get a glimpse of it. It is just that the glass in the sunlight triggered it more than in any other object, and a deeper sensation of perceptual acuity arose in the mind of the artist.

Our artist, being perceptive to this sensation, then set to work in the only way they know to bring this sensation to our attention. The artist tried to picture the wonderment - or write it into a poem or compose it into music, and, in theory, this should draw our awareness to what the artist experienced into an art object. But theory is one thing and reality something quite different, and what we find is that what the artist has done is to ignore the wonderment of paint and canvas - or words, sound or movement - and tried to use these materials to direct our thinking to picture a glass in sunlight. Now, this picture is not a direct experience of what confronts you and it therefore work to suppress the reality of an experience of any object that is needed to get this sensation of wonderment to be triggered in your mind.

What we need to understand here is that creating an art object be taking material and modelling it into some form of representation works against the reality of what you experience in real life. Art, as Wilhelm Wollinger wrote in 1908, is...

“....realized expression, and the sole expression conceivable for man, of the emancipation from any arbitrariness and any temporality of the image of the world. But soon this impulse tends to rip out the individual thing from the exterior world, which retains as its main interest its obscure and disconcerting connection with this outside world, and so tries to get closer to it through artistic restitution of its materials individuality, to purify this individual thing of everything that is life and temporality in it, to make it as much as possible independent both from the surrounding world and from the subject of contemplation, which does not want to enjoy in it the vitality that is common to both, but the necessity and the legitimacy where this impulse can find refuge from its connection with ordinary life, in the only abstraction to which it can aspire and which it can attain”.

The art object becomes imitation of reality rather than direct experience, and, for anyone aware that their mind is working to suppress the direct experience, what you create can, if you are not very careful, propel your thoughts away from the very thing you seek to discover. Ask an artist and they will try to tell you that this direct experience of reality is the core sensation of what makes them want to be an artist - assuming, of course, that an artist is a perceptive individual sensitive to discovering an intuitive underlying sensation in their view of the world. This underlying intuitive sensation is triggered in your mind by the suspicion that there is a great deal of uncertainty in every-day things that your mind works to stop you sensing. Your mind wants to suppress this disturbance in your powers of observation because it will cause you to fail to recognise what confronts you. Suppressing uncertainty in what you see is an inherent behavioural response that ensured your distant ancestors survived to pass on this power of recognition that now allows you to look with such assurance about all you see around you. The art experience is the sensation that arises when this assurance is disturbed because, only then, does your mind open to being full of a sensation of wonderment for all things. Not understanding what you see brings this sensation to mind, but it is a very impracticable way of sensing the world. To survive it is essential to possess precise powers of recognition and understanding about what you see. The artist does not think like this. The artist looks to not understand and becomes a dreamer because of this need for wonderment. You begin to look not to paint a picture you can recognise but to capture the uncertainty you feel in what you see, and this will make you an artist who's work becomes an impression, or an expression, or a total abstraction. Let us say you look at a glass of water, but you don't want a recognisable photographic representation of this object. That would remove the sensation of uncertainty from what you see, and so to try to get the paint and canvas to create the sensation of wonderment, and here lies the difference between traditional and modern art working procedure. A picture of a glass of water - or anything else for that matter- does not reveal the wonderment of the reality of what the picture purports to depict. It cannot, because the art object works to remove its own reality by directing your thoughts away from the paint and canvas towards an imaginary image. Or, in the case of music or dance, away from the reality of sounds and movements towards the imaginings stirred by the performance. We, as viewers of art objects, come along and ignore the reality of what confronts us. We don't look to the reality of an object made of paint and canvas to experience the wonderment that these materials hold but we look away from this experience. We look to the artists image and, as strange as it may seem, the artist has, in creating a recognisable image of a glass in sunlight, destroyed the wonderment of the reality of paint and canvas. The subject- the picture of the glass - directs your thinking away from the direct sensation of what confronts you, and it is only in this direct sensation that the wonderment that is the cause of the art experience can be found.

Of course the artist skill and craftsmanship will be full of our admiration and respect for this picture of a glass of water in sunlight, but this is not what the artist is about. The artist is looking beyond craftsmanship and the desire for a product because the artist is a person who senses in a deep original way. They look to expose this depth of perception but this, as we now understand, will be destroyed by any attempt to translate it into an art object. Only the directness of the reality of what confronts you can give you this wonderment that is the core of the art experience, and it is this sensation that is art and not the object the artist makes in an attempt to draw our attention to this depth of perception.

Now, we might wonder, what if the artist did not try to translate the art experience into an art object. What would happen if the artist took paint and canvas and tried to make us look directly at the wonderment of the sensation of this reality by creating an abstract. Our artist can easily do this by throwing paint so that we cannot find a recognisable image to draw our thoughts away from the reality of what we see, but now our artist finds they are faced by a dilemma. Still the sensation of wonderment for what confronts us will be lost because to show it to you our artist is going to have to stop you recognising the object as a work of art. That very idea will suppress the reality of what we see, and so our artist has to just place paint and canvas in an art gallery, or a real glass in an art gallery, and called it art. We will come along and shout this is not art because it fails to uphold the established principles of the profession. The artist, you see, cannot win. The art experience will be lost in any attempt to reveal it because the artist will have to destroy the art object to get you to sense the reality of what you see.

Most people don't realise that to come to know the art experience requires you to find wonderment in a direct confrontation with a real object. You cannot find the art experience in a picture an artist has painted, or in music or dance, because this directs your thoughts away from the reality of the experience. People look to the artist to portray the wonderment of the world, but no artist can do this. You cannot paint a picture of this sensation, nor turn it into words because all these actions will take the wonderment of the reality of any object and direct your thinking to a leaned idea that your mind uses to suppress the direct intuitive view of what you see. In the case of a painting of a glass of water on a table in sunlight the artist will transform the direct experience into paint and canvas that destroys the reality of the event, and replaces the uncertainty and wonderment of this object with an idea of an art object that works to suppress the experience it tries to portray.

Of course this is a simplified view. I am a naive thinker, but the clarity of the simplified view will be swamped in the more complex concept that ensues from the argument that the art object has to become a tool of communication. At an intellectual level of meaning the art object is thought to form language where, in the case of painting, images allow us to transmit information about our experiences of the world. The artist will want others to become aware of what he, or she, senses, but what is communicated changes the reality of the sensation. In art this often leads to an established idea being applied to objects that served a very different need to that of direct experience. Painting is no more immune to this need to communicate the identity of an idea about an object or an event than anything else. For example; a painting of a sabre toothed tiger was not crafted upon a cave wall for the same reason as a framed print of an endangered animal adorns a modern living rooms. The ideas we apply to what paintings represent have changed over time, and there can be no reason to insist that what we believe a painting should be about today is what painting is about, per say. Indeed, because our ideas about objects and events change over time we should remain sceptical about what we believe, and in painting the only certainty is that the reality of the object is something made of paint applied to a flat surface. All other ideas as to what this object made of paint on a surface communicates should be treated with suspicion.

Until the turn of the twentieth century the reality of painting - that is to say the material with no subjective image and no information to communicate - was never considered to be any more than part of the substructure of the work of art. The paint and it's support was not the main element in the creation of a work, because the artists thinking was fully occupied with higher ideals. The painter learned technique so the handling of the paint became second nature and became subservient to the subject being portrayed. All the artistic endeavour was directed to transforming the reality of paint and canvas into a picture. We looked to comprehend an art object by understanding the painted image, the carved sculpture, the composed music, choreography of the dance,or the story in films or books. Even the quality of workmanship was, until modern times, always seen to be an essential part of what art was about, and the artist created a work through these time honoured procedures to emphasise empathy in what they did. We came along and looked to the work of art, and this object worked to remove our thoughts from our immediate surroundings for a short time through the enjoyment of watching a film or reading a book, or, as is the case with a painting, by immersing ourself in an image. Wilhelm Worringer gave emphasis to this concept in Abstraction and Empathy 1908. “To enjoy aesthetically means to enjoy myself in a sensuous object diverse from myself, to empathise myself into it.” When we find ourselves faced with a more direct immediate experience, as in an abstract work of art that makes little or no reference to recognisable content or composed forms, we begin to confront a different sensation generated in our minds. A feeling of alienation arises from a more direct encounter with the object in front of us because the reality of the object - the paint, clay, sound, movement that was used to make the object – begins to become more noticeable than the content. The reality of the work begins to infringe into our empathetic way of comprehending the world, and, as Hilton Kramer wrote in his introduction to the 1997 reprint of Abstraction and Empathy “Worringer also understood that this feeling of alienation expressed in the will to abstraction was a phenomena of immense relevance to modern culture. “That which was previously instinct is now the ultimate product of cognition,” he (Worringer) wrote. And taking his cue from Schopenhauer, he cautioned his readers to understand that “man is now just as lost and helpless vis-a-vis the world picture as primitive man” – a statement that was soon to be restated in even more powerful form in Kandinsky's treatise On the Spiritual in Art written in 1910 and published in 1912.

From my own point of enquiry I look towards the world picture that we now live with as being more 'lost' than ever before. Despite our vast understanding of what surrounds us and our ability to control and manipulate the natural world for our own needs we seem further away from the state of wonderment for day-to-day things than ever before. This sensation of wonderment was once thought to be a spiritual thing. A kind of affinity with all things, that we once lived with in the natural world, became, through our conquest of that natural world, a suppressed view. I prefer to steer clear of this word 'spiritual' because it encourages thoughts of ethereal overtones in the art experience and in our view of nature. I would rather have it that the sense of wonderment in life comes when you remove all learned ideas about what you see. The paint in the tube is full of wonderment but once you guide it to form a recognisable image you have lost that intuitive sensation.

I much prefer this downward looking way of thinking about the reality of all things. It gives to me an affinity with the nature of our animal responses to the world, (Darwin 1859, Dawkins 1972, et al.) rather than the upward view that believes our minds have been miraculously endowed with some magical powers. Art, to me, is not a product of intellectual refinement that we have been endowed with by grace of god, I see art as the outcome of a behavioural response we have inherited from our distant animal ancestors. That this response drives us to make beautiful things can now be understood to be a reaction to an 'animal' based way of sensing the reality of an object or an event through instinct. We look to move away from this raw sensation at work in the depth of our minds, and in doing this, we are driven to create order and organisation in our view of the world. This way of seeing creativity, as a reaction to animal instinct, is a modern concept that was not available before our times. We can now begin to understand that artists create art objects to suppress disturbing intuitive responses within their powers of observation, and there is nothing more disturbing than loss of this power of recognition and meaningful content in an art object. When an artist brings reality to what they do we find ourselves faced with paint and canvas, concrete noises without composition, or meaningless movements that confront us with the actuality of the art experience, rather than the imagined transformation of it into intellectual dreaming.

The one good thing about abstract painting, as it is with abstract sculpture, concrete music and dance, is this removal of meaningful content. Even though this type of work seems 'empty' of cleaver reasoning, and is subject to much abuse, it does give, for those who seek to discover it, this sense of wonderment that we have learned to suppress behind learned understanding. The intuitive 'feeling' of uncertainty that not understanding brings to mind is what the artist so longs to come to know. You may not like this 'feeling' when you look at the abstract meaningless result, but this is your mind working to suppress an old inherent way of sensing the directness of the world, and it is only here, in this face to face confrontation with an uncertainty of all things, that the power of the art experience as wonderment can be sensed. Nothing before modern art allowed the artist to explore this directness in what they experienced.