Is The Value of Abstraction Lessened on The Internet?

by Paddy Johnson on October 28, 2010 · 20 comments Opinion

YouTube Preview Image

Abstraction has a difficult row to hoe on the Internet. It’s harder to tag non-representational with key words, which in turn means Google has a tougher time knowing what to do with it. Also, while Internet users love taking pre-existing material and turning it into something a little more abstract (see the video above), they rarely use pre-existing abstract material as source material. In short, representation is its own distribution.

I started thinking about this today, when I began to wonder why the video above — the most abstract in a series of videos of Simpson collages by Shane Duarte — had the most views despite being the most visually complex and musically difficult. Surely, the more melodic Tungsten Baby should have a few more views?

The answer to this question as far as I’m concerned is anomaly.  The Lynchsons (not racist) [above] was the first video linked on Metafilter back in June, and the artist hasn’t had a link from a major site like that since. Generally the Internet prefers rhythm and representation.

Still, I am forever plagued by the Rashaad Newsome discussion the blog hosted back in May, whereby most commentors concluded that collages such as this can’t lead to substantial work. The Lynchsons goes farther than most, but I’m not sure there’s much of a message here. Is that a problem because we no longer value abstraction as much as we used to, or simply because this way of working is a dead end? I don’t know the answer.


Luluparr October 28, 2010 at 5:45 pm

the value of abstraction, from the artist’s perspective, lies in emotion. The internet will never and cannot bridge the chasm between what lies between the work and the viewer. That spirit remains within the heart of the hand, and then, in essence, to the work, and in no short order, to the individual viewer. The internet doesn’t lesson or embellish abstraction. It simply lessons everything.

Beau October 28, 2010 at 5:55 pm

I’m not sure that Duarte is doing the same thing as Newsome. This is sketchy, but maybe one way to think about it is that Duarte is interested in how “difficult” form interacts with the cultural peculiarities of material, whereas Newsome is treating the mashup as more of a readymade form for for cultural commentary. Where Newsome syncs everything up, exploiting a kind of universality of gesture, Duarte breaks everything apart into weird little pieces.

Here’s another excellent example of disintegrative Simpsons art by Jack Perkins:

Anonymous October 28, 2010 at 6:05 pm

This way of working is a dead end (although arguably that might not be a “bad” thing). But it seems a stretch to say that we don’t value abstraction as much any more.

Also worth noting would be the source of the original link-to, and how that creates any perception of value (or lack thereof). Particularly of interest to me in this case would be the type of audience that the link from Metafilter created. Along those lines, how much importance should we give to view counts? Is Lady Gaga any more or less important, or culturally relevant (etc), for reaching a billion YouTube views? Maybe, maybe not. Personally I’d rather have 20 informed/connected (hyperlocal?) viewers than thousands who post comments like “ewfWEGRGH dasf.”

gest October 28, 2010 at 6:10 pm
Nick October 29, 2010 at 12:26 am

Ooh, I hate to be a grammar nudzh…but one hoes a tough row, when getting the garden ready for planting. Using a hoe to build a road would be very inefficient.

I find a certain appeal in this Duarte clip, but it has the “everything-coheres-when-everything-can-be-anything” aesthetic. I shot a good video of my 5 year old nephew smashing keys on the piano. A couple of rhythmic cuts, and voila.

Which is to say, I guess, that Newsome’s piece was overdetermined by a dull intention, and Duarte’s is so open as to be nothing at all.

Markcreegan October 29, 2010 at 3:40 am

and another
just music using a painter’s sensibility

Anonymous October 29, 2010 at 2:24 pm

What Beau said (damn that’s good) with the added thought that the “difficult” elements of the Duarte make us think about the source material more and it’s therefore better than the Newsome, which repackages what we already know.

Hhalle October 30, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Sorry, but I don’t buy that Duartre’s “difficulty” of form makes us “think more” about the source material than Newsome’s (what? presumably simplistic?) approach does to his source material.

sally October 29, 2010 at 3:47 pm

I think the problem is not abstraction but endurance/duration. The Duarte is pretty great but it goes on too long in the same vein. If I was sitting in a dark room watching it screened I’d be perfectly happy to relax, trip out and observe what it could do to/for me aesthetically. If it was looping on a monitor in a gallery I’d watch it til I felt I’d “got it” and then move on. Online, I’ve got an “I get it, already” trigger finger (ie: ffwd through the rest of the vid. using scroll bar to see if anything different happens). Personally, I’d have stuck it out longer with this work if it had been more abstract.

sally October 29, 2010 at 4:36 pm

I think its useful to distinguish between emotion and affect. Abstraction does things to/with our bodies that may or may not evoke emotions. When I am looking at a real Jackson Pollock I definitely feel something, but emotion isn’t the right word for it. Also, if you are familiar with digital media then the artist’s hand can come into play for an empathic connection online. Timing, resolution, colour choices, juxtaposition — they all have affective gestural qualities because it is possible to empathise with the artist’s decision-making process.

I agree that the use of abstraction to explore subtle emotional effects is pretty rare in online art practice. Usually people go for dazzling, op/pop art-style abstraction because its impact is instantaneous and viewers have short attention spans. But there is no empirical reason why this should be so, and I suspect it will begin to change as the novelty of mainlining eye candy wears off. Not that eye candy will disappear (god forbid! I love it!) but I think there will also be more linking to and sharing of subtler pieces. Two of my recent favourites by Lorna Mills (1, 2) even use original footage! It is quite possible to create an emotionally evocative abstraction on the internet and it isn’t necessary to always rely on an instantly recognizable cultural meme to peg it down and make it legible.

Dan Phiffer October 29, 2010 at 5:05 pm

I wonder how Rafaël Rozendaal might fit into this discussion? Seems like his recent works (e.g.,, are very much about abstraction. Are they less “valuable” than his more figurative works (say, This question has a measurable answer! At least in one dimension of “value,” given that he’s found a way to sell his work to collectors. I wonder if abstraction factors into what price he can get for a work?

Also, that Newsome video appears to be suffering from a kind of link rot. Here’s the FLV file:

Anonymous October 30, 2010 at 3:40 am

Dan, who gives a crap what sells?
Sally, if you speed-scroll through the Lynchsons it lessens the humorous impact of the reprise of “Nelson’s theme.”

Anonymous October 30, 2010 at 10:49 pm

We should start thinking about Google as an organism that has flourished through a process of natural selection as well as a prosthetic extension of the human body.

Culture is a product of a complex process of mate selection. Dave Hickey has talked about this idea in his memoir Air Guitar when he pointed out that most songs are love songs. Google helps us “search” quite literally. However, it would be a mistake to think that natural selection promotes things that are morally “good” or healthy for humans. Disease can wipe out tons of people. But it’s part of a process of developing stronger immune systems.

I don’t think that abstract artists suffer from Google, though the art itself might. It just makes the art more dependent on institutions and searchable keywords (ie. Dan Colen, Gagosian, bubble gum). Searchable things have more power under Google’s laws. Perhaps a large number of search results is like having a large number of suitors in our age.

sally October 31, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Social Darwinism? yikes. I generally find it helpful to keep in mind that while culture evolves its timescale is much, much faster than genetic evolution. Too much wanton analogy between the two can get dangerously misleading really fast.

Anonymous October 31, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Someone on told me people want to have sex with me so I guess all those Google hits are finally paying off. I foresee an army of sandy haired kids with glasses and a glib and aggressive internet manner.

Anonymous October 31, 2010 at 2:47 am

Reply to Howard Halle: the consensus of the Newsome threads Paddy linked to above was that the Newsome video was a “forced meme” that didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about rap videos and Carl Orff. You made your views to the contrary known. Thanks for weighing in on the Duarte video’s (presumed) lack of “difficulty”–good to know it tells you nothing about animation and/or Simpsons conventions.

brian_j_hettler October 31, 2010 at 11:02 pm

I have to say that as a digital artist working primarily in abstraction, the main issue for me is how the medium is being utilized? Abstraction is removed from working in a primarily formal or emotional way when you are working with digital media. One key element to remember is that as much as digital art may be influenced by the history of contemporary abstract painting/sculpture, it cannot remove itself from being pure data. The next question is how does that original data inform the end result? I empathize with Paddy’s sentiment about Google not being able to process the ideas underlying abstraction, but isn’t it far more interesting to find out exactly where Google decides that your work should reside? The unregulated/automated system of categorization seems to then be another layer that can add depth to web-based abstraction. Digital abstraction now seems to be more about the alteration of data, so why not let that data be sucked into the gaping void of the internet and spit out under a new context?

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 3 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: