AI: Voice of Fire

To some degree, all art requires abstraction. One cannot replicate reality perfectly, so if one thing is meant to represent another, there needs to be some loss of fidelity. However, some artists of the last century decided that the idea of abstraction should be explored in the extreme.

What value do paintings like The Voice of Fire have? Are they anything more meaningful than a child’s scribbles? Should they be considered High Art? Was the abstract expressionist movement a valuable experiment?

Voice of Fire, Barnett Newman, 1967

The Voice of Fire is a massive acrylic on canvas painting. It was part of the United States’ display in Expo ’67 and was purchased by the Canadian National Gallery in 1990 for 1.8 million dollars.

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. Can I start out by saying that I’m glad you didn’t pose the question “is this art?” I hate that question and I’m tired of answering it. 🙁

    I have struggled with modern art for a long time. I fought it tooth and nail even through the art history classes I took in college. On one hand, my visceral reaction to this kind of art is intense loathing. I think it’s full of itself, pretentious to an extreme, and is incredibly ineffective at communicating whatever deeper meaning it’s getting at.

    On the other hand, modern art is a clever bastard that pretty much doesn’t give a shit what you think and, in fact, occasionally cashes in on that fact. Whether or not it should be considered high art IMHO is not up to me. I think “high art” in of itself is a nebulous phrase that seems to be backed by the people who can spend the money to put something behind a velvet rope or in a glass case and charge people to come look at it.

    I think I’m probably too bitter/cynical for this kind of art. :\

  2. “I think I’m probably too bitter/cynical for this kind of art.” :\

    The irony here is that it was bitter and cynical artists that created the modernist movement.

  3. This is fairly good timing considering CY twombly died this weekend. He happened to hold the honoured spot of my least favourite artist ever! Not that I take any pleasure in his death, I’m sure he was a lovely old man, I just hated his art.
    I dislike any art such as what you have shown above. I feel that it has been elevated above its rightful status (of coffee shop wall dressing). Much of abstract expressionism is pleasing to the eye but when the artist claims that the painting represents a social critique on the moral collapse of society through a thousand word essay beside the painting, I can’t help but call bullshit.
    If a piece of art is unintelligible on its own then it is nothing more than eye candy, which is fine just don’t pretend it is otherwise.
    Sorry for the rant :/ Overall though, I do feel that the abstract expressionism movement was worth it. It is always important to push past the edges of what has been done before.

  4. The irony here is that it was bitter and cynical artists that created the modernist movement.

    Touche! Greenberg’s formalism alone probably spawned a whole new level of bitterness/cynicism, and I’m not just talking about the students who have to learn about it. 😐

    @dpeapody If a piece of art is unintelligible on its own then it is nothing more than eye candy, which is fine just don’t pretend it is otherwise.

    Does that mean all works of art have to be obvious or blatant? I don’t know if I necessarily disagree with you or not, but because art is still subjected to each viewer’s personal interpretation, I’m not so sure that unintelligible is enough to say that it’s without substance.

    Incidentally, this is also why I shy away from making art that’s substantial or deep — if I have something to say, I’d rather just come out and say it!

  5. Maybe “unintelligible” is not the right word. I don’t expect things to be blatant or obvious, I am happy for them to be obscure and abstract. But there is a point where art goes from abstract meaning to meaningless. For example the work above, with no background the painting could stand for anything or nothing. It could be a sandbar in the ocean, a volcano erupting, a red line on the road, a flag, symbolism of people divided, the rivers running red with blood or it could mean nothing.

  6. “meaning” isn’t really the issue with Abstract Expressionist / New York school work.

    Go stand in front of a monumental scale Newman, Rothko or Pollock. That’s the point, you have to be there in person to experience what happens when you let it dominate your visual field. The closest thing I can think of to the sensation is that moment at the end of Kubrick’s 2001, when Dave Bowman first starts travelling into the monolith.

    The work is supposed to make you experience a moment of transcendence. Unfortunately a picture of the work can;t communicate that.

  7. I don’t think I disagree at all; I think something abstracted down to this level is ridiculous, visual field or no. I’ve scanned through some modern art pieces at the Centre Pompidou and was similarly unimpressed by some of the painfully pretentious stuff there that mimicked this kind of work.

    For me, El Anatsui’s massive bottle-cap blankets are stunning, but they’re also visually compelling — almost like a three-dimensional Klimt. This? Mehhhh.

    Still, I understand the cleverness of modern art and can understand the appeal of going beyond just a face full of bold stripes. I would certainly defend Abstract Expressionism as a legitimate and important movement despite my distaste for it.

  8. I completely agree. I may not like this style but art is all about exploring and pushing boundaries.
    On the topic of scale, I have seen a few of the huge abstract modern paintings in person and they really did not do much for me. But the raft of the medusa! Now that was a transcendant experience.

  9. It certain must be considered High Art, I think. It sure as hell ain’t Low Art, or Popular Art, or Kitsch Art. High Art is about all that’s left.

    Are they more meaningful than a child’s scribbles? Absolutely. A child’s scribbles (usually) represent what that artist was capable of doing. Abstract expressionism, in contrast, says more about what the artist chose to do. Or, more often, what the artist chose NOT to do.

    Was it a valuable experiment? Well, of course. Failed experiments are typically just as valuable as successful ones, if not more. (I’m not saying Abstract Expressionism was definitely one or the other.)

    Was it an important enough experiment to justify crowding so many other schools of art out of the mainstream of 20th century High Art? THAT is a different question entirely….

  10. I’d be curious as to how many of the people who dislike this piece are actually practicing artists / fine art students, or have a formal fine arts education.

  11. Why, are you trying to measure the level of brain washing in art education?

  12. I think the movement was valuable at first, since it explored some very important questions about art. But I also think that it’s time to move on; generally modern art seems to be getting lazy, vague and redundant.

    And scale or other catchy visuals are interesting, sure, but it won’t compensate for a lack of thought. Or even too much thought and no ability to communicate.

    And that’s the thing: I feel that modern art is failing to communicate, and to me that makes only slightly more interesting than a child’s scribbles.

    (I don’t even want to go into what “High Art” is. It seems like an abstract expressionist question anyway, lol.)

    And since you asked; I am a college senior in an art program and I have been to museums and seen these things in person. Modernists like Pollock will never be as important to me as Manet, David, or Giotto. Or even Tex Avery.

  13. What I never liked about modern art was that in attempt to make it more accessible and free, it totally alienated itself from the common man at the same time by doing some very obscure, confounding things and piling on a metric fuckton of pretentiousness on top. Striving to break art open and inject itself more visibly into real life simultaneously made it all the more hard to understand. It’s easy to get tripped up on the grand meaning of something and totally botch the execution. Painting with your own feces may be shocking, but that may be ALL a person sees, rather than the message you’re trying to send.

    Anyway, mattg, I have a degree in visual arts and am a practicing artist. Not that it makes me an unquestionable expert, certainly anyone is free to disagree (please do!), but I do have a bit of background.

  14. Let’s take these in order:

    “What value do paintings like The Voice of Fire have?”

    What metric are we to judge value by? Bad skeptic, no desert for you until you define your terms. 🙂

    But seriously, if you take value to mean a personal value then of course it all depends on the individual work and the response that the individual viewer has to that work. As this is a purely subjective thing every work can, and probably does, have the full range of values possible.

    On a institutional level clearly The Voice of Fire has a monetary value as demonstrated by the price the CMG paid for it. I have no idea what their procurement procedures are but at least one person had to have thought that it was worth that much.

    On the level of artistic expression I’m not qualified to judge any individual work. I can only say if it affected me emotionally or not. (see above) But as a whole I think that this sort of art is beneficial for the health of artistic expression in general. We always need folks who push out the bounds of what’s considered art. With out that stretching of boundaries there’s a risk of stagnation. Perhaps this is no longer relevant, isn’t abstract expressionism no longer nouveau?

    On the level of society I think this sort of art has a positive value as well. The more abstract art becomes the smaller the numbers become of people who are affected by it. This is often seen as a negative, charges of elitism get leveled. But I think that there is something truly egalitarian about a society where abstract art is available in addition to more representative styles. Rather than elitist art I would call it art for outliers. A society where the only works available are abstract expressionistic would indeed be elitist, but a society where the only works available were, say, social realistic would be no less egregious. A society that limits its art to forms that appeal to only the broadest range of people is a society that doesn’t value it outliers. I’d hate to live in that society even if I never was personally affected by any of the outlier art.

    “Are they anything more meaningful than a child’s scribbles?”

    My child’s scribbles are far more meaningful to me than any art I’ve ever seen. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by the term “meaningful”. In some senses you could substitute “meaning” for “value” in my above arguments and they would still hold. For me meaning comes from the observer, it’s purely subjective, and in that sense any piece of art can have the entire range of possible meanings.

    “Should they be considered High Art?”

    Being a musician rather than an artist I have no idea what “High Art” is. I’ll pass.

    “Was the abstract expressionist movement a valuable experiment?”

    This seems to me to be a rewording of the first question so I’ll point you there for my take.

    Anyway, thanks for this. I love these sort of questions even though they deal so much with the subjective that finding an objectively true answer to any of them seems almost impossible.

    I would love to see some kind of FMRI study or somesuch that demonstrates just how different types of art, abstract expressionism included, affects people. I’d love to know if those who love this type of art are using a different part of their brain than those who love photo realism for instance.

  15. @dpeabody art appreciation, like food, benefits from an educated palette. Call it “brainwashing” if you like. I prefer to call it knowledge. Then again, I’m always amazed by how antagonistic people seem to get to the idea that their opinions in an aesthetic field may not be as valid as those with more specialist education and experience.

    It’s worth bearing in mind this is a 40+ year old work. What is considered “modern” art now, as in contemporary art, is not the same thing as this piece, which is “capital M” Modernist, (which covers the period from the industrial revolution through to the end of these guys. POP, the reaction to this being the beginning of Post-Modernism in fine arts).

    I don’t like this idea of “pretentiousness” as a label (that always sounds like anti-intellectualism). The New York school was a serious attempt to create objects which cause the same physical and psychological reactions in the viewer that sacred architecture evokes. For attempting to do (and frankly, succeeding like a moon landing) something serious, they get ridiculed?

    But meaning aside, cause all works should stand on just what they physically are, It’s a freaking beautiful thing. What a perfect articulation of the colour red. No forced meaning is necessary, it’s an exquisite object. How dark bluey is that dark blue? How perfectly the notion of one of a thing is demonstrated. The proportions, the colour balance, everything about this is absolute mastery. Simple is always hard because if you get anything even slightly wrong in something as clean as this, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

    Man, IMHO you gotta be a dead, heartless thing not to be struck by pieces like this.

  16. I feel my points still stand.
    “The New York school was a serious attempt to create objects which cause the same physical and psychological reactions in the viewer that sacred architecture evokes. For attempting to do (and frankly, succeeding like the moon landing of Apollo 13) something serious, they get ridiculed?”
    “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.” I would also add that Ridicule is often what happens when you fail at something in the eyes of many.
    You seem to not understand the subjectiveness of art. What “succeeds like the moon landing” to you, fails like prayer to me. This work makes me feel nothing other than maybe a little contempt. You are welcome to love it, I don’t.
    You can question my status of being alive or not and whether I have a heart. And I shall question your sanity and probably ask to administer a drug test.

  17. Good intent or ‘seriousness’, as skepticism has shown us, is not enough to protect something from scrutiny or ridicule, be it abstract art or faith healing. There are no sacred cows, least of all in art, which thrives on its own self-criticism and is incredibly, highly subjective in terms of audience perception, which brings me back to my previous point. For me, because I think art is an inefficient medium to project a specific message, I do not put a lot of meaning into my own.

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