Have you ever stood before a painting in a museum and asked yourself why it's supposed to be a work of art?
American Abstract Expressionism is very old news. It eventually won the day and became certifiably valuable. Canvases by any of the great Ab Exp names--Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning, Francis, etc.--today command prices in the tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars.
There's no denying that human beings are capable of reading complex ideas and feelings into almost any kind of visualization.
There's nothing wrong with seeing meaning in abstraction. The way people may feel about any work of human ingenuity is not governed by ethics, or religion, or pragmatic considerations.
Dada, and the Surrealists taught us that we may find art anywhere. Duchamp discovered readymades, things not conceived as aesthetic objects, which nevertheless, when seen from a certain perspective, can become art.
What would you think if I told you that the piece above was worth a million dollars, based on the auction records? Would you shake your head in disbelief, or nod casually in grudging acknowledgment of the unpredictability of aesthetics?
Who would work to create a surface as seemingly random and disorganized as this, and ask us to accept it as the representation of something useful, inspiring, mysterious, or valuable?
The plain fact is that this is a photo of a piece of plywood that I found at the local recycle center (read "dump"). It's probably a counter-top that was in someone's workshop. Or perhaps it was on the floor. It looks for all the world like one of those drop-cloths that house-painters use to protect the floor or the sidewalk.
It was obviously NOT intended as a work of art.
But when I looked at it at first, there was just that little blip of hesitation in my imagination: Was it a painting? Sometimes people will leave tired old paintings there, usually of the color-by-the-number variety. Was this someone's idea of an Abstract Expressionist piece? Then I quickly realized that it was just "too dirty" and haphazard to be that.
Does an event like this serve to undermine our presumptions about the meaning of abstraction in art?
Does it give the lie to all those drip/splash/smear/smudge canvases that we've all become familiar with in museums and galleries over the last half century?
I don't know. I like and enjoy Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis and de Kooning as much as the next guy. But there's always the certainty that some small portion of our regard for abstraction is self-delusion, that what we're seeing in the art is at least partly editorial, constructed by our desire to respond to something which we've been told is worth the effort of doing so.