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...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead are a completely valid artistic unit. Every facet of their music has a sophisticated and intellectual tone to it, with their advanced composition, poetic lyrics, and especially with their art direction.

Conrad Keely is the man most directly involved with these - as it’s called in the liner notes of Source Tags and Codes - "new directions in art appreciation". Not only does Conrad direct, and even create, most of the artwork, but he also writes most of those poetic lyrics that inhabit The Trail’s music.

Trail Of Dead avoid being completely pretentious, however, with their clever wit and humor. One trip to a live show of theirs will display that they are all about having fun, and not taking things too seriously. The band also enjoys posting funny news blips on their website.

Through these online posts the band has done many hilarious things, including comparing The Dropkick Murphys to the monkeys they saw at a zoo, and clever little comments revolving around SXSW. Another interesting thing posted on the bands news site is an essay written by Conrad.

Abstract Art is Shit is that essay by Conrad Keely, which was posted on his bands website on May 7th, 2003. Through this essay Conrad destroys abstract art, and makes many valid points against the current state of modern art.

Abstract Art is Shit

I recently visited two museums in Sidney, Australia – the National Gallery – which housed an impressive collection of Victorian-era masterpieces, and the museum of Modern Art. Walking through the forth floor of the latter we passed by one installation piece – it was a pile of coal on the ground. This, I thought, is what modernity has reduced art to – a pile of coal on the ground.

Modernity, it seems, has robbed art of 20,000 years of development. Some modern artists I’ve spoke to don’t even feel it necessary to look back upon the development of art – art, as far as they’re concerned, started in the 20th century, when someone declared "anything can be art".

But really, can anything be art?

Visual art is about ways of seeing. As obvious as this may seem, it is one of those explicit truths whose simplicity makes it easy to forget or to take for granted.

When studying art on a theoretical level we are often challenged by academics to define art, and the question is turned into to a philosophical one – can art be defined, and what, after all, is art? These attempts to over-intellectualize something which is fundamentally intuitive has led many to believe this is a complex, even unanswerable question.

But the truth is that art is most definitely definable. It does, and has served a function in society for thousands if not tens of thousands of years now. It is concrete, living, and in many cases even quantifiable.

During the twentieth century a conspiracy took place to viciously defame the merits of the old academic art style. Gallery owners, driven by profit and greed, chose to back abstract expressionist painters because of their far more prolific output. No longer held by bounds of representation, they could finish a canvas in one day, where the old masters might spend one year on a canvas, sometimes longer.

The result was "modern" art.

Within this art form, the artist’s idea, or "concept" takes precedent. Most of us were probably taught in art class – even up into college – that we ought to be free to "express" ourselves. And as wonderfully as this might serve to turn every human being into an artist, this really isn’t what art has ever been about.

In fact, it is important to remember that art as expression is a recent development. At least, the artist’s personal expression. Throughout history art served a very specific function – it exemplified an ideal, represented an object, or narrated a story or allegory. Even the first paintings done on caves were not abstract or exercises in self-indulgence, but beautifully, sometimes sublimely realistic representations.

I decided to try an experiment. A friend of mine has a four year old daughter who is bright for her age. I asked her to give me her opinion of which paintings she preferred. First I would hold up a piece of realism – say, Alma-Tadema’s "Spring". Then I would hold up an abstract work – say, a Pollock or a Rothko. Without fail, each time she showed disinterest or perturbation in the abstract work, and tended more to remark upon the "prettiness" of the realistic piece, or objects within the piece itself.

This led me to wonder, were we taught how to appreciate abstract art? If so, it would appear that its appeal is intellectual rather than intuitive. Its purpose, it would seem, is one of alienating those uneducated or not in-the-know, and creating an artistic "elitism". But art, in my mind, ought not to be an elitist thing at all, but rather serve to elevate all humanity.

I believe the beauty of the academic artistic tradition is endangered. No longer are students taught the fundaments of draftsmanship and representation, but rather to "tap into their feelings" or even "defy the rules", without ever having been taught them. Especially this farce called "installation art", in which the observer is meant to glean from a haphazard collection of objects the artist’s true intent. Honestly, do we really care?

Is a four year old child really going to see an allegory to the artist’s pain, or is she simply going to see a pile of coal on the ground? Do the unadulterated eyes of a child see abstract art for what it really is, just a bunch of paint thrown randomly onto a canvas?

The crux of Conrad Keely's argument against abstract art lies in this vague point:

"This led me to wonder, were we taught how to appreciate abstract art? If so, it would appear that its appeal is intellectual rather than intuitive."

By the word intuitive, I am not sure whether Keely refers to subconscious brain function or to the innate genetic mannerisms of the human brain. Regardless, I will show how abstract art appeals to both realms of quality-detection, and can do so with equal or greater success as classical art.  Keely is correct in noting that poor abstract art, or that is not generally well received by human observers, exists. I'm sure Keely has also seen plenty of classical pieces that are shit.  Abstract art, done well, appeals to the so-called intuitive functions of the brain as well as the learned intellectual sense. That Keely doubts this fact says more of his own personal interest in art, not of the way of the world.

Consider the art of Jackson Pollock. Ignore, for Keely's sake and for the sake of the scientific method, his experiment with the four year old girl. Although I would never use the results of such an experiment as research data, I have a proposition for Keely. Show the same four year old girl two pieces of abstract splatter paint art: one of Pollock's and one of an unknown artist. I do not wish to subjectively predict that the girl will choose Pollock's piece every time, but I do not have to... because she will.  The little girl is intuitively inclined to choose Pollock's piece as the more appealing piece each time she is confronted with a choice. The reason is purely neuropsychological. Human brains have an innate set of shape detection programs. Special clumps of shape detection neurons specializing in picking out circles, dots, lines, various simple curves and angles, fractal tree patterns, generic human faces, and a secret little ratio called "the golden ratio." Thousands of years swinging in the trees probably explains the fractal tree pattern recognition ability of the human brain, just as trans-generation evolutionary experience in a lush organic world influenced the mind's draw towards anything with a size ratio of about 1 : 1.6.  Since non-man-made objects on the earth, such as leaves, seashells, and minerals, tend to grow in a size ratio averaging at about the ratio of one to one point six, the human mind has taken on the ability to detect such a distinction without being taught to do so. 

Pollock followed the golden ratio in his work. Even though he may not have known about shape detecting sets of neurons, or even the golden ratio itself, while creating his art, he had a built-in golden ratio detector similar to anyone in his audience. If the art didn't appeal to him, he would destroy the art. This trial and error positive feedback loop left the world with artistic gems honed in on an ancient subconscious pleasure center. 

A similar neurological effect has tantalized onlookers for centuries in Japan's Ryoanji Garden. Instead of appealing to the golden ratio detecting feature of the human brain, the four hundred year old rock garden taps into the tree detecting neurons of the mind. The Ryoanji Garden is in fact highly abstract art, yet it appeals to the mind's intuitive senses, making it a success

Researchers have traced the intuitive appeal of classical music performed by a human piano player versus a computer simulated piece to simple mathematical reasons. While romanticists and other uninformed listeners believe the superiority of human performed music is due to the unique beauty and creativity of the human mind, one can alter robotic pieces of music with simple equations to mimic the "human touch." It turns out a human performer will simply filter the piece of music through a handful of simple mathematical functions. Working with multiple pattern filters simultaneously, the musician, be it a computer or a human, can create a piece of art more appealing to the human listener.

Just as classical music utilizes the intuitive easter eggs, if you will, of the human mind, so do abstract artists. The abstract artist’s vehicle for achieving the result may seem a bit unconventional to classical enthusiasts such as Keely, but few can deny the similar mathematical power of all “good art,” be it a canvas splattered with seemingly random bursts of paint or a curiously fascinating portrait.

Thanks to ac_hyper for the first reference



One small correction before I dive in,
"Abstract art, the term describes art that depicts real forms in a simplified or rather reduced way - keeping only an allusion of the original natural subject."

Therefore abstract art must depict or imply real forms, so an abstraction not alluding to any original subject IS NOT abstract art.

Abstract art falls into two categories, the first of which is--

1. Random
The artist throws a rock through a window or slaps dots on a canvas. No thought is put into it, the artist knows nothing and cares nothing for the principals of artistic design. "Vola`! Give me money for my masterpiece!" Not legitimate art, in my humble opinion.

2. Thoughtful
As my former art teacher the great Tony Ferguson said--
"You have to Learn the Rules Before You Break Them." (that was before he was ousted by a bunch of lazy students, but that's another story) I have no respect for the former category.
The point is, “What am I trying to communicate.” not “how much can I sell this crap for.” The basic artistic principals of Contrast, Color, Shade, Negative Space, ect... all can, and should, be applied in abstraction. I have great respect for any artist who chooses to use abstraction as a medium to convey his work-- and to create something of substance and meaning. Art shouldn't be limited by what you can see. But at the same time It needs to have a purpose, a goal, a idea, something to distinguish it from nothingness.

There is more than two categories. This is highly biased.

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