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The Self in Art Or What You Can Learn From an Academic Paper

eglaser's picture

During the section of our class devoted to art, I was surprised at the amount of people who objected to the idea of abstract art in our small group. It seemed that that majority of the class neither liked nor understood what abstract art represented. The complaint seemed to be that there was nothing really to look at, it did not serve any real purpose and it did not depict anything real. I myself love looking at abstract art because of that fact. What abstract art is, in my opinion, is a painting of another persons mind. Do you wish to know how that painter feels? What do they see when they look at the world? If you just find one of their paintings you can find out. I have always seen abstract art as a recording of the pure emotions and thoughts of the individual who painted it and I find that through viewing abstract art I come to understand how others think a little better. I have found that this does not only apply to art that has been labeled as abstract, even realist paintings and impressionists leave a lasting imprint of themselves in their work. Because art must pass through the human psyche on its way to the page or canvas, it reflects not only the simple object that has been recorded but also the inner workings of the artists themselves. Through all forms of art; paintings, literature, photography etc. we are witnessing an interior world that is removed from the world around us. By examining different art pieces and passages from literary texts I wish to explore to what extent all forms of art are abstract.

Because all art comes from the human mind the individual who creates it alters it. Thus all art serves as an abstract representation of the author as well as a depiction of the subject of the painting. Both paintings and works of literature adhere to this rule and so all forms of literature can be considered as abstract art as well. The only distinction that can be made between what is commonly referred to as ‘abstract art’ and representational art is that ‘abstract art’ is created with the sole purpose of exploring this rendering of the unconscious mind of the creator without representation of other objects to distract from this goal.

That is what differentiates professional photography from a simple snapshot taken on a vacation. In the art form of photography there is still such an abundance of creative choices that must be made that we learn more about the photographer through their paintings then we do about the photograph itself. The artist/ writer/photographer unintentionally inserts a part of themselves into the work through colors, style, themes, subject matter and distortions of the works themselves. A bold, clear example of what I am trying to argue comes from the famous surrealist Salvador Dali.

Dali is most famous for his surrealist representations of his dreams and nightmares. His style is almost immediately recognizable through his use of broad yellow landscapes and skewing of the ordinary into the extraordinary. Note the low horizon line, the large cloudy expanse of evening sky, and his interspersing red patches of color and rough hewn rocks in this scene (picture located at This expanse creates a sense of loneliness and isolation in the viewer. To view this painting is to experience the isolation Dali himself felt. But, this is an example of one of his abstract, surrealist works, so of course it would reflect his state of mind, that is the point of surrealist art. But, this expression of himself should only be limited to his works that were created as purely surrealist art. If art is not totally subjective then other works by Dali with a different subject and purpose would not reflect his emotional state, correct? Dali, like many artists, made a series of portraits for his patrons and friends, portraits that were meant to be just that, straight pictures of the subject. The below painting was created with that purpose (Picture located at The subject was a friend of Dali who requested a portrait to be made. Although he has clearly made an effort to refrain from his usual surrealist fare there are still hints of him in the painting in the same broad, cloudy sky, the same low horizon and emphasis on yellow that he used so often in his other works. The woman is painted as a realist figure with no distortions or deconstructions of her form. Yet, the same emotion lingers in this painting. The woman sits alone in this empty landscape hedged in by the menacing form of trees on either side of her. The only other form of humanity lies in the low form of a house far back on the hill but her back is to it and, despite the quality of detail in the rest of the painting, the house itself is a little blurred and ambiguous. The woman appears to be stuck out in the middle of this landscape and knows she cannot escape. This is not a reflection of the woman who is the main focus of the painting. Rather, these feelings and fears were placed into this picture by the painter himself. His sense of isolation has been transposed onto a painting of a different individual entirely. He is able to channel a normal scene, created in meticulous detail into an exploration of his own mind and thoughts altering the subject because he is incapable of preventing the inclusion of his own feelings. However much he wanted to paint a simple portrait of his friend he had no choice but to include some small portion of himself in the work.
What separates the idea of ‘abstract’ art from the majority of art is that abstract artists go into their art with the intention of only representing their unconscious mind and feelings. Dali may have included his emotions in both pieces simply because it was his goal to do so in all of his works. We cannot be sure and it is likely seeing as he did label himself as a surrealist painter. Thus it is necessary to examine a realist painter and see whether or not their own psyche comes across in their work.

Chuck Close is a painter and printmaker known for his amazingly photorealistic pieces. He works with a process that allows him to divide a picture into tiny squares and then transfer each square onto the canvas. Although he is fully capable of creating absolutely fully realistic pieces almost indistinguishable from a photograph, he often chooses to use explosions of unlikely colors to bring emotions to the piece. Seen from a distance, this piece (picture of Lucas/woodcut (1993) located at is almost completely photorealistic but seen close up, well, that is a different story. He uses an unusual blend of color that does bring the portrait very close to the subject but it also includes a strange burst of emotions. Chuck Close said of his works that, “I am going for a level of perfection that is only mine…” Although his goal is to achieve perfection in his art he recognizes that he does have a style that is his own and even in a perfectly realistic piece that self is made visible.

In class we questioned whether or not it was possible to have abstract literature seeing as how the form a book can take is very limited. Based on this view of abstraction however it can be said that all literature is abstract. An author must do in a thousand words what we can normally do at a glance. They must convey a scene complete with people, emotions, setting and action with a series of black and white words on a page. As they attempt to illustrate their story with words the reader must then interpret them and will uncover meanings of their own. I do not understand how this can be done in a way that is not abstract and self representational. The author is, of course going to include ideas, metaphors and allusions that they understand perfectly but that may seem unusual or irrelevant to the reader.

This, perhaps, can explain to us why we had such difficulty discerning the gender of the main character in Siri Hustvedt’s book The Sorrows of an American. Although, as a skilled writer, she is perfectly capable of writing in a male characters voice most of the class did not realize the main character was male until the sixth page when he talks about his divorce. We came up with a myriad of reasons to explain why we had confused his gender, the majority of the other characters were female, we assumed so ourselves because Hustvedt is female, but the answer is likely much simpler. It is possible that Hustvedt unconsciously wrote her main character as a woman because she herself is one. Her book is about the workings of the subconscious mind and how it can influence our conscious selves, she may have fallen prey to her own theme and written Erik as a female. It would also explain the brusque way in which Erik’s gender was eventually made known to me, with a description of male masturbation.

Her writing reflected a female character rather then a male one because of her accidental imprinting of herself on her artwork. Whether or not she resembles her character is negligible, the author is always present in their books, for Hustvedt it was through an accidental gender switch that was likely unintentional.

Walt Whitman’s collection of poems in Leaves of Grass also represents a form of abstract art similar to the style of abstract painters like Jackson Pollock and Salvador Dali. His lack of a focal point or real subject and his continuous, purposeful exploration of himself in his poems indicates a form of literature that is both abstract and is aware of itself as an abstract work. Whitman, like Dali, makes no attempt to erase himself from the work and in fact uses that as his primary point of interest. “I celebrate myself,” Whitman begins his poem, “and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (1). He writes his own associations and feelings, creating a world that is solely his. We often have difficulty determining what exactly was happening in scenes in this poem. Perhaps, like a Pollock painting, we were not meant to, we were simply supposed to bask in the art made by Whitman’s mind without interpreting it or looking for familiar objects in it. All sense of normalcy has already been distorted by his overwhelming presence and an attempt to uncover something in the poem not touched by Whitman’s overbearing sense of self is impossible. In this instance the imprinting of the author in an abstract text was intentional and overpowering until, like the Pollock we viewed in class, some people could not find any way to view it themselves.

From Whitman to Hustvedt and Pollock to Close, it is impossible not to find a trace, no matter how small, of the creator within the artwork they have created. Even in a paper such as this, my thoughts and feelings are made abundantly apparent to the reader. Of course that is not the intent of the paper but it has happened. Do you not believe me? Allow me to demonstrate to you exactly how much of myself can be read in this paper.

In this paper, thus far, I have taken a similar approach as I have in my other works done for this class. I have attempted to present the standard academic paper, with just enough tone and wit as to be palatable to the teacher but without too much personality. However, because there is a self behind the workings of this paper, I fear I may have included for more information about myself then would be readily apparent to another individual reading this paper. (2)

My opening paragraph to the paper reads more then a little antagonistically towards my fellow classmates. When I wrote this sentence, “It seemed that that majority of the class neither liked nor understood what abstract art represented,” I was honestly expressing what seemed to be an ignorance on the part of my peers. Especially my use of the word “understood” stands out as a blatant attack on the individuals from my small group. (3) I will admit that my frustration from that small group has infected my paper to a rather large degree. During that section of the class I felt as if people genuinely did not know how to view an abstract painting and thus did not know how to discuss one. This has escaped my memories and latched on to this paper about abstract art. My feelings on this matter do not simply fade or disappear, when addressing this topic, of course they should resurface, even in a structured paper.

I continued my antagonistic tone through the questions I asked my readers, “do you wish to know how that painter feels?” What I was really trying to say was, “do you know how that painter feels, because I do” (4). I have taken many art classes throughout high school and my Father delights in researching art and artists and then retelling, at length, all of his findings to me. Because of this I do have some basic knowledge of specific artists. One of these is Jackson Pollock who is my Father’s favorite painter. Coming into that class where we were able to view a discuss two of Pollock’s pieces was absolutely delightful to me until I began hearing how other people viewed those pieces. It was incredibly frustrating for me to sit through that class and not be able to lecture everyone on how they should be viewing a Pollock splatter painting. My question is an attempt to engage the reader in my paper sure but, it is also asked in the hope that the reader will say, “no, I don’t know how he feels, do you?” It is a question asked in the hopes that I will be given a chance to express my slight expertise in this area and show off.

I next express my main thesis, “art must pass through the human psyche on its way to the page or canvas, it reflects not only the simple object that has been recorded but the inner workings of the artists themselves.” As I have said before I have taken many art classes all through high school and so I have myself produced art. I chose this topic to write on specifically because I have experience in this area. My primary focus of my art was portraits of other people. I enjoyed drawing figures and faces. However, as time went on I began to notice that the majority of my pieces, even if they started off differently, eventually ended up as self-portraits. I started breaking up pieces, simplifying and abstracting them, in the traditional sense, because I was so incapable of creating art of anyone other then me. I was afraid that it would come across as narcissistic so I began to distort my pictures. Thus, by the end of the year I had a series of works that all looked different but were in some way or another, all pictures of myself. This main argument came, not from the class or from an academic musing but from my own realizations two years ago. Because of this I began looking at other peoples art and wondering, what is in this that they did not want to express but came out anyway? Do they even know how much of themselves is in this? Ask almost any artist and they will tell you the same thing about their art. Art comes from emotions and from responses to a specific landscape or person or object. Out of hundreds of shades of red the artist picked that one specific color, out of dozens of options for the arraignment and lighting of the scene they picked that one. My question, and now the question of this paper has always been, why? (5)

In this paper, and all academic papers, the same creative choices exist. Why use that word to explain your theory? Why use those examples? I had thousands of artists that I could have used as my examples so why did I pick Salvador Dali and Chuck Close? Because they have specific connections to me, connections I alone have (6). I see Dali as an incredibly courageous artist because his works are so personal. I decided that Dali was the best way to show, in what I considered to be an obvious way, how personalities can infiltrate a painting. Although I can see it in almost any painters works (7) Dali was so focused on expressing his unconscious self in his art that I selected him absolutely sure that others would see it too. Why I picked Chuck Close is a different story. Unlike Dali whom I respect but do not particularly like, I find Close’s paintings to be extremely beautiful. All of his works are immense and are meant to be seen from a distance; however, when you come right up to the painting you can see each individual line of color that makes up each piece. I also knew he was someone who was not afraid to put himself in his art, one of the first works I ever saw by him was the portrait of a woman done entirely in his finger prints.

I could go on in this vein for quite some time but I think I have now demonstrated how personal this impersonal paper is. Although my intention was to merely present an argument I was completely unable to keep out my own biases and feelings regarding art and abstraction. My paper was not purely academic or impersonal but was pulled in a unique direction based on my own subconscious thoughts. Is that not the definition of abstraction? If that can even leak into this setting then it must be present in works of visual art and literature which come solely from the mind.

I could never state my argument better then Oscar Wilde does in his book, The Picture of Dorian Gray. One of his characters, who is a painter, says that “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the colored canvas reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown it the secret of my own soul” (8) If any painter or writer realized just how much of themselves was revealed in their art they would be afraid to display them unsure if the viewing was simply another form of voyeurism. It is impossible to prevent and has even started to become the mian focus of some specific genres of art. Everything that is produced by a human being, be it a photograph, an essay, a poem, a painting or a novel will contain the subconscious thoughts and emotions of that human being. Because of this all art is a form of abstraction, all literature is a form of abstraction, and the only individual was is capable of fully understanding either is the person who created it.

1. Whitman: 21
2. This is one of the problems with this kind of interpretation of art. It is impossible for any person other then the artist to fully understand all of the nuanced meanings in their work.
3. At Bryn Mawr, how can a declaration of someone’s lack of knowledge not be seen as an insult of the highest order?
4. Although, how can I? Like I have just said, it’s impossible to fully understand another person’s mind. Is this just arrogance on my part?
5. Usually when I’m stuck in a car with him and can’t escape.
6. Ok, I really went off there for a while. A bit too passionate, don’t you think?
7. I really wanted to use Pollock as my example instead of Dali but I was afraid that I would turn into my father and that Pollock would take over this paper.
8. There’s that arrogant tone again. Erin, cut it out or you’re going to come across as a complete bitch.
9. Wilde: 4

Works cited
Adams, Ansel. Vernal Fall. 1948. The Ansel Adams Gallery.
Chuck Close: Process and Collaberation. Blaffer Gallery and the graduate students in the
Instructional Technology program in the University of Houston College of Education.
Dali, Salvador. Equestrian Fantasy - Portrait of Lady Dunn. 1954. VirtualDali.
Dali, Salvador. Invisible Afghan with the Apparition on the Beach of the Face of Garcia Lorca in
the Form of a Fruit Dish with Three Figs. 1938. VirtualDali. <>.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass The Original 1855 Edition (Thrift Edition). Minneapolis: Dover
Publications, 2007.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.