Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Teaching Mondrian and 'The Matrix'

Abstract art, so they say, hasn't been well received by the general public in the United States since the 1913 Armory Show in New York. As it was presenting the likes of Picasso, Duchamp, and Cezanne, the public was not especially overjoyed by the contents. Since then, many Americans still find abstract art to be baffling, offensive, and most frequently, something of a joke.

I get a somewhat similar reaction when teaching 20th century abstract art in the art history survey. As an art that was more interested in high concepts rather than accessibility, it can be a difficult subject to make interesting for art n00bs.

That's why I find that Mondrian is actually my favorite of the abstract artists to teach in class. He was dogmatic, inflexible, and I think rather inflexible in the end, but for me he is a perfect teaching example.

Mondrian’s art was rooted in philosophy. He was interested in Theosophy, Blavatsky, and Schoenmaekers, believing that beneath the deceptive world around us lay the hidden structure of the universe. That underlying universal truth found expression in mathematics. Think, for example, of the inevitable expressions of math in nature: the Fibonacci sequence, the Golden ratio, hidden spirals in conch shells. It now appears that even hunter-gathers participate in the Lévy walk, a mathematical pattern of movement observed in bees and sharks.

Especially important for Schoenmaekers was the visual contemplation of this hidden cosmic reality (according to White (p. 25), a result of Shoenmaekers’ background as a Catholic priest combating Protestant ‘inwardness’). Artists could access this hidden mathematical structure of the universe using that oh-so-very visual branch of math, geometry. And so Mondrian stuck with squares and rectangles, lines, and, of course, the three primary colors (the subatomic particles of color, if you will). Naturalism in painting was deceptive, a lie, and it should be the goal of artists to reveal the true cosmos that exists beneath the world around us and perpetuate that truth for others.

This is some pretty heavy stuff  for an introductory class, but I can’t help but get excited about it because it relates to my research interest in iconographic theory. Yet, how to easily get across to students the point that Mondrian paints the core elements of the universe that lay beyond the lying natural world that lies?

For me, and probably anyone born after the creation of Star Trek TNG’s holodeck, a parallel between virtual reality and Mondrian's world quickly comes to mind. This is most helpfully articulated by ‘The Matrix.’ In that movie, humans are trapped in a fake world, a world made of lies that they don’t see and cannot recognize. The entire world is a computer's creation, while humans happily putter along, oblivious.

But Neo, like Mondrian, can access the hidden structure of the world, he can ‘see’ what lies beneath. And for Neo, is it mathematics? 

No, it’s code. But, of course, what is code? Numbers. Zeros and ones.

Like Neo, Mondrian wants to reveal the hidden reality to all, to make it clear as day. But alas, Mondrian finds that cosmic structure to be beautiful and wants to celebrate it, while Neo wants to destroy it. Because in ‘The Matrix,’ that mathematical structure of the universe is just another level of deception.

Nevertheless. ‘The Matrix’ and Mondrian. It’s still a pretty fun comparison – if one were to break down the visual world into its base code, the fundamentals of visual programming, wouldn’t it just be lines, shapes, and primary colors?

Who knew Keanu Reeves could help me teach abstract art?