With a secret preference for Renaissance and Impressionist styles, I don’t know if I can do this. Let’s start with language. Language is a conceptual mapping of the world. It breaks the raw, unintelligible flux of experience into intelligible chunks (conceptually, not physically). We first access the world conceptually not in simple chunks, but in complex but finite experiences, just as physically we see a table, not the atoms that make it up. To see a table on its atomic level is more difficult. We see the complex immediately, but to see the simples, perhaps ironically, requires some subjective mediation on our part.
In the visual arts, some works give us a holistic, complex scenario – a mother and daughter walking in the park. This is immediately intelligible. Thus, it almost guarantees some affect in the viewer. We may or may not find it aesthetically pleasing or thought-provoking, but the artist has pretty much stacked the deck in terms of having the viewer process it on some affective level. The amount of aesthetic value it has is not contingent upon its intelligibility, which is a given, but falls upon other matters of style, content, and cultural context.
Abstract art, on the other hand, “abstracts” the simpler, hidden building blocks of visual experience and recombines them. There are of course many levels of abstraction between complex, holistic lived experience and absolute simples. A Picasso painting may go one step deeper and depict a face with an eye on the chin and a breast hanging off the left ear (like a sheet of stained glass that’s been shattered and had the shards put back together in the wrong places). An eyeball is still a complex, but is nonetheless not something we apprehend in the abstract in ordinary experience. When we see someone, we don’t see an eyeball, an ear, and a breast. So that painting has broken lived experience into smaller building blocks. Part of the value of such a work will probably lie in how well it exposes for the viewer the abstract building blocks that are always already embedded (though not immediately recognized as such) in his/her lived experience.
A more abstract painting may go deeper toward even simpler, more abstract units of lived experience. Take Joan Miro’s compositions of straight or squiggly lines and half-formed figures, the archetypal fragments of geometry, or Rothko’s non-referential color patches, returning us all the way to the archaic building blocks of visual reality.
Bottom line: When the composition corresponds to a holistic unit of lived experience – a traditional representational painting – it is immediately intelligible (whether or not it has much aesthetic value). The closer the compositional markings get to simple abstractions (i.e., the further from holistic, as-lived experience), the more subjective mediation is required for the work to be intelligible.
I think we will agree that it is silly to pronounce art at either extreme generically “good” or “bad.” Great aesthetic value can be generated by art that deals in the holistic sequences of lived experience as well as by art that seeks to uncover and “make conscious” the hidden building blocks within lived experience.
20th-century poetry shows, generally but not universally, a much greater interest in the 2nd kind of art. Call it the influence of a remarkable set of contemporaries – Einstein, Freud, Picasso, Joyce, Pound, etc. This interest may take the form of imagist poetry, which isolates smaller and smaller chunks of lived experience, each of which remains holistic. Take William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens
Because this backyard scene remains holistic, it is immediately intelligible – we know what is being said/depicted. But because it so deliberately chips off such a small chunk of experience, we are unsure of the value/meaning of such a work. I can tell you from having taught it repeatedly that despite anything Williams thinks or says, to see this poem as valuable or meaningful requires mediation. Most readers immediately find it intelligible but do not immediately see any value or meaning in it. To see it as valuable means rethinking your orientation. The best imagist poems succeed in getting the reader to rethink his/her orientation; the worst fail to do so. So this, tentatively, would be an important standard of value for an imagist poem. And this standard of value – whether the poem succeeds in getting you to rethink your orientation toward smaller and less immediately meaningful chunks of lived experience– is more prominent in relation to 20th century imagist poetry than to other historical bodies of poetry. It puts a different kind of pressure on the reader, and it also runs a different kind of risk – the risk of being too mundane to matter. Naturally, some such poems succumb to the risk and some rise above.
Other poetry in the formative modernist years, say T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” or “Waste Land,” respond to the same changing world view (precipitated by Einstein, Freud, Picasso, the trench warfare of World War I, etc.) but respond differently. Here the scene is larger but less holistic. They strike the reader not as simple, digestible fragments whose meaning is in jeopardy (as in Williams), but as collections of incongruous fragments whose intelligibility is in jeopardy. To take the simpler Prufrock, the path from line 1 to line 17 seems fraught with discontinuity.
Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening…
Each phrase, image, concept, is clearly a meaningful fragment – a building block – of language, but the fragments at first reading don’t add up. We’re not even sure who is doing what in the landscape of the poem. The intelligibility of the poem is in jeopardy, and it requires much mediation for the reader to render the compositional markings intelligible enough to be valuable. The poem’s success or failure in achieving aesthetic value is contingent upon whether or not it can reach that threshold of intelligibility for a given reader. And this contingency is at the heart of much 20th century poetry. The best of such poetry reaches that threshold, leaving the reader with the feeling that we’ve just juggled the building blocks of conceptual experience and come up with an expanded conceptual register of the world. The worst of such leaves the reader feeling that it was just a silly, self-indulgent word game that didn’t pan out.