This is Cathedra, a painting created by Barnett Newman in 1951. Classified by many as “modern art,” its high status in the artistic world has been disputed due to its simplistic style and plain appearance. So does it deserve to be called art?
YES: Marie Louise James
Barnett Newman, an American artist dominant in abstract expressionism and color field painting, is an example of how modern art can be both austere and emotionally communicative to an audience. Valued at $12 million, his painting Cathedra (1951) features a large blue 243 by 543 cm canvas, and a vertical white line that may not strike all viewers as interesting or as “art.” Although abstract art can be quickly condemned as simplistic and insignificant, many works of modern art deserve more appreciation for their aesthetic and symbolic achievements.
Newman’s paintings are intended to communicate a certain atmosphere. Despite the simplistic nature of Cathedra, the blending of various hues of deep blue on a monochromatic canvas show the artist’s detailed and studied technique. The painting is asymmetrically split by a white vertical line. Called a “zip” by Newman, this line is a classic feature of his work, and it is intended to define the spatial structure of the painting. In addition, the zip serves as a contradiction. It can be seen as dividing the painting; yet at the same time, uniting the two split sides of the canvas.
A more in-depth look at his work reveals Newman’s philosophy of the cultural role of modern art. Newman, an important figure of abstract expressionism, believed that traditional art subjects had become invalid after World War II. He also saw post-war art as being haunted by fear and tragedy. He wrote that “old standards of beauty were irrelevant—the sublime was all that was appropriate—the experience of enormity which might lift modern humanity out of its torpor.”
Indeed, the rich and vibrant blues in Cathedra create a sense of tranquility in the artwork, and the “zip” reaches out to the viewer as a spark of freshness in the midst of the deep, serene canvas. The impression of the painting on the viewer reflects Newman’s goal as an artist, as the artist once wrote that he “prefer[s] to leave the paintings to speak for themselves.”
Newman’s work exposes the purity of abstract art, since as the strictly visual symbolism is removed, a possibility is left behind for the viewer to have an individual response to the painting. The potential of modern art is truly expressed in Newman’s work. As he once said, “I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality.”
NO: Cheyenne Setneska
At first glance, Barnett Newman’s Cathedra seems to consists of two large squares. However, upon closer examination, it can be determined that the painting is, in fact, entirely composed of two squares. In order for a piece of art to be featured in a museum or on display, it should be something original, something that a common person is not capable of creating.
Some of the artwork that is admired today has transformed from detailed, skill-oriented talent to abstract, “can you draw a line” type of work. This is not saying that all modern art is unworthy of praise and appreciation; however, there should be a better qualification for what can be considered impressive. Cathedra, specifically, does not express any unique talent, and therefore should not qualify.
Perhaps there is a deeper, more abstract interpretation of the painting, one that examines the way Newman’s techniques communicate his views. However, there are many viewers who prefer the message to be distinct and prominent. It is difficult to fully comprehend the meaning Newman is sending through his art; leaving it open for interpretation is a method that leads to confusion and, quite frankly, a frustrating dissatisfaction for the observers.
Negative opinions of Cathedra were taken to a whole new level in 1997 when Gerard Jan van Bladeren, who despised abstract art and realism, physically slashed Cathedra with a carpet knife. In fact, some people who really valued the piece attempted to fix the painting and gave it an even more specialized treatment, preserving it in plexiglass and making it viewable only from a walkway. Even though destroying someone’s work is an unacceptable extreme, is Cathedra really deserving of a plexiglass case on display?
Although it must have taken some skill in order to create such an impressively straight line down the center of Cathedra, that should not be a reason to view the piece with such awe. People have stared at the painting, contemplated it, mused over its symbolism. They have viewed it with admiration—this plain, seemingly easy piece of art. A painting should consist of a more substantial image, one that demonstrates the effort put into its production, one to make the artist proud, one to have a pleasant impact on the minds of the audience. In short, Cathedra is a simple, overrated work of art that does not meet expectations in the world of creation.