Case for the Importance of Abstract Art
…if this seems to be written a little weird, it is because it is a speech and meant to be given verbally. So just imagine me, standing at a podium, conversing with you about art…
On one occasion a program monitor for the BBC invited a number of influential and well-respected art critics to view an exhibition of abstract paintings in a small gallery in London’s West End, where they were asked what they thought the artist had in mind when he painted the pictures and what the paintings represented.
After much discussion they came to their conclusions. At this point, their host sprang a surprise by suddenly announcing the artist was actually working away in a back room of the gallery. He flung open the door and there was a chimpanzee, complete with easel, brushes and paints, diligently producing another magnificent work.
This shows the level of respect and understanding that most people hold for abstract art, seeing on par with something an ape or child could accomplish.
Abstract art, or art that does directly depict things of a familiar reality, is often decried as a lesser form of the arts. This art form is often seen as, at best, an esoteric activity for a few diehards, and at worst, it is considered extremely elitist. The general public who are attached to movies, television, and computers, barely see abstract art as having anything relevant to say. The only question left is whether there is any audience at all for painting and if there is, how to preserve it. As people who are immersed in an image, art soaked culture, we should take a valued interest in understanding the importance that all art forms hold upon our society. Although it is not commonly understood, Abstract painting, focuses on its own flat reality based on color, surface, shape, mistakes, and changes, is a valuable art form, which should be appreciated and created even when perhaps there are seemingly many more visually powerful media possible.
Some of the biggest issues surrounding Abstract art are the misconceptions that many people hold about its purpose. I first plan to address problems and misconceptions about abstract work, in hopes of guiding to a better understanding of what it is and how to approach it.
It first must be understood abstract art often interpreted as though is it the same as representational art, which should not be the case. Representational art is defined as representing some actual, external object. Representational art is almost always giving the viewers an immediate response. If the painting is a realistic depiction of a bowl of fruit, the audience is able to relate the image to their own experience of reality. However, abstract art does not contain any images that the audience can contextualize. According to Art and Antiques in its September 2004 issue, with this ambiguous approach to subject matter, abstract art may leave some viewers yearning to know what a work is supposed to mean. Other artists may appreciate abstraction’s open-endedness, but others find it an obstacle to fully understanding or enjoying a work. Even if viewers respond positively, they may still find themselves asking, “But is it any good? Is is art?” For this reason, abstract art is often seen as too avant-garde, too on the cutting edge to be understandable.
Consequently, abstract painting has never been, and most likely never will be, widely popular. According to an article entitled, “Why Abstract Painting Still Matters” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, April issue of 1999, abstract painting turned out to be too subtle, too self-referential, and too demanding of the viewer’s patience to attract a mass audience. Even some art authorities have been discounting of abstract art. Ernst Gombrich, the great art scholar was quoted in the 2007 February edition of the Weekend Australian of accusing abstract art of being too domestic in its often-decorative qualities. For him, the tradition of representational art, is saying more, so it is worth it to pay attention to it more. Even an abstract painter himself, as quoted in the August 2008 edition of Business World, “Abstract art is difficult to understand but I like it,” he continues to elaborate with the slightly unhelpful, “That’s the beauty of abstract art, you’re free to interpret what you see.” However he finally lands on a sentiment that aides us in our quest going forward, “Painting is not inspiration, it’s work,” he said.
It takes work to understand how to approach these seemingly unapproachable works and we can’t expect to be struck with inspiration as we stand uneducated before an abstract piece. So practically speaking, how are we to understand abstract art, and how will that guide us in appreciating and attributing value to it?
Since we have talked about the problems many people hold with abstract painting founded in their misconceptions about it, we will now talk about how to properly understand and thereby appreciate abstract art.
It is first crucial to understand: Abstract painting is not meant to be anything, it must be understood as self referential. All you are meant to understand from the painting comes by looking at it and appreciating the colors, the forms, and the intricacy. According to New York dealer Kimberly Venardos, as quoted in another edition of Art and Antiques, 2006, “Sometimes it’s just a mood that a work generates and which captivates a viewer,” Venardos shows works by contemporary abstract painters and encounters newcomers to this kind of art all the time. Quote: “Although many abstract artists do refer to forms from nature in the colors, shapes or patterns they employ, I let clients know this art is wide open to interpretation.” Often the works created are also a challenge to look at, according to The Guardian in April 2007, abstract art challenges us to see it as it often is: nice to look at. The work cited in the article, “creates an amazing lift and lightness, its white, bird-like shape ready to soar up into the heights of the gallery. Why not stop and enjoy it? Perhaps it is “chromophobia” or fear of color”. Are we afraid of looking at a painting that is simply about color?
When making the work, the artist carefully considers elements of color, shape, line, form and composition. The artist considers his moves in creating the work carefully, not in happenstance. He sets up his own rules through the medium he decides to use or the shapes he decides to introduce. It is essential to understand this process when viewing an abstract work. As the famous modernist art critic Clement Greenberg stated, all painting stripped down to essentials, consists of marks or color carefully applied to a surface. Abstract art embraces these essentials – remaining honest to this definition without pretending to be anything more
In addition to abstract painting creating and subsisting its own world, a second crucial element for understanding and appreciating abstract art is to see that abstract painting is not a story. We are bombarded by endless through television, advertisements, novels, movies, and virtual-reality games. Picking up on that aspect of our culture, many representational painters have inserted stories, or “narratives,” into their paintings. According to the National Post in 2007, “[Their aesthetic] is informed by a global awareness, the Internet, travel. Abstract art can transcend borders and religion….” But abstract painting resists narration and presents itself all at once, as a whole or a oneness that cannot, and never will, tell a story. Abstract painting is very uncamera-like, uncomputer-like in nature. The camera is so powerful that many people have reached the point where they can see the world only photographically or cinematically. Abstract painting offers us a slower alternative to the instant capture culture. Abstract painting makes for a quiet room in the arts, allowing for a slow waltz instead of a jerky, swiftly-over rave.
To fully understand and appreciate abstract art, it is crucial to understand some of its problems. It is not to be seen in the same way as representational art although many will attempt to view it the same way. It is not widely popular and will never be as approachable as representational art. And finally, It is often very open-ended which can be frustrating to many viewers. To understand abstract art, it is crucial to understand the purposes behind it and how to approach it. Abstract painting is not meant to be anything, it is self-referential. All you are meant to understand you will gain from looking at it and enjoying the color, composition or shapes. Abstract art is not supposed to be a story but rather is a quiet antithesis to our culture’s reliance on things and fast paced images, and should be seen as a place for the eye to finally come to rest. Just because you are not an artist, does not mean that you cannot come to have a deep appreciation with only a surface level understanding of abstract art. Newcomers to this art form can learn to trust their instincts, too. “Sometimes you look at a piece,” art critic Wendy Snycler from Art and Antiques says, “and you feel that it is incomplete or somehow still unrealized. But when you look at a work and immediately feel its poetic force, sense the touch of the artist’s hand and feel his or her presence, then you’re inside its emotion. That’s when you know you’ve encountered great abstract art.”
Could a child or an ape really have made these paintings? Standing in front of a work as color moves around the canvas in an undulating surge, it is easy to feel like a newborn child, seeing the world in wonder for the first time.