In the previous post, I discussed some of the motives behind the applications of modernism in painting. One of the main staples was the elimination of the figure from the language of paint, due to its heavy connotation to narrative, art history and its contamination of the purity of the optical flatness that modernist painting demands. As Simon Schama puts it in his series "The Power of Art", " they abandoned painting things.....to strive for a new form of pure expression."
However the defiguration in painting is not so black and white. There were political as well as cultural factors. During the late 1930s-early 1940s, the fascist dictators of Europe had employed figurative artists (and subsequently the figurative tradition) in creating propaganda for the military and their own radical ideals. Mao Zedong, Stalin, and Hitler all implemented the visual arts as a recruiting tactic. This further warranted the figure to be absent from painting in the modernist mind, or at least modernist painting in the United States.
One of the ways the use of the figure in propaganda elaborated on the modernist theory, which required the extraction of the figure, was that it made art easily accessible and easily influential. Propaganda was targeting the easily manipulated which tend to be those who are uneducated. The WHAM SHAZAM illustrations of the heroic war bound figures, that plucked at the patriotic heart strings, and promised a role as a heroic patriot to the viewer. Thus the figure was seen as eye candy, or as a professor of mine put it "a visual sugar rush". So it was a simpletons, easy to understand form of expression.
The amorphous splashes and seamless shapes of Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning etc., were a global testament to the free accepting democracy of the United States, and in fact the paintings of the Irascibles went on a tour of Europe to act as counter insurgence to the fascist propaganda (which is somewhat hypocritical).
This leads to the esoteric reputation that modern art currently has. To further distance modernist painting from its nemesis, figurative propaganda, modern art had to consider its accessibility. As was said above, because of its fairytale like nature, propaganda was accessible to all because, instead of communicating an emotion, which is a complicated and unique experience, it was dictating a command which is non-exclusive. So the work of the abstract expressionists are very much a theoretical rendering, and some knowledge is required to fully grasp their content.
So the roots of modernism were not a goup of untalented and frustrated artist who rebelled at the figure because of lack of ability. On the contrary, many of them had academic training. However what the abstract expressionists were doing was striving to achieve a new form of expression that would transcend all physical borders because it depicted none. To use self reflexive mark making to reveal the process of art making, creation, and in that moment of creation, discover another person, the artist. Which at the time was not only the theoretical and artistic advancement but a political statement.