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Three reasons why you need abstract art

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

Abstract painting by Australian artist Hilma Af Klint: The Swan, No. 17
Hilma Af Klint: The Swan, No. 17

"But isn't abstract art just...."

You're admiring a piece of abstract art, and a little voice says: "...but it isn't real art, is it?" Or "It's just daubs of paint, it isn't about anything."

I think these nagging ideas (and they nag me sometimes) are actually wrong, because abstract art shares with "representative art" all the elements that I think are important; and because abstract does things that other art forms don't.

So there are 3 good reasons to have (or to make) abstract art. But this is something I learned...

In Art School, I started with real things

The strength of the teaching I had with Adelaide Central School of Art , was its focus on drawing: seeing things and effectively and accurately representing them with pencil, charcoal, paint, found objects, etc.

Why "accurately"? Because translating your perception into something else, is fundamental to all art. Even if what you perceive is what you think and feel rather than what you see. This means that as an artist, you are in control of what you produce.

Why "effectively"? Because nobody creates an image, a photograph, an object of almost any kind, without wanting or needing to have an effect on the recipient.

I grew reasonably skilled at representation. Then as I developed as an artist, I moved towards abstraction. I wasn't certain that it was "valid", but by being exposed to a wide range of art, and reflecting on how these worked, let me make up my own mind about what art consists of.

What goes into an artwork

I think that every effective artwork, must convey to the audience, some mixture of:

  1. The subject (i.e. what the artists sees; what concept or message they want to portray or explore)

  2. The mind of the artist

  3. The materials used

(I'll explore this idea in a separate blog posting).

Abstract art's subject can be (for example) :-

  • a simplified version (an "abstraction") of a scene, pared down to a selection of elements (such as texture, form, space, colour, tone; Mark Rothko is but one good example)

  • perception and how it can be manipulated or used differently (think of Pointillists, Impressionists; and especially Cubism, which offered a way of "impossible" seeing. Asemic Writing uses our familiarity with writing, to take the eye and mind on a different journey).

  • movement (think of Jackson Pollock, whose later art was about the movements he made and the way paint moved)

Every artwork is a translation, and is more or less subjective (otherwise every picture of the same scene would be identical!). Every translation has biases of the translator built in. Abstract art is particularly dependent on what's in the artist's mind, and how she translates this through shape, line, colour, form, etc., (because these things aren't tied to objects).

And this freedom (or looseness, if you prefer), also means that the materials can be chosen more for their own meanings or effects. When Braque used sand in his Cubist experiments, he did it to link up shapes across the painting - not because it had anything to do with sand, beaches, etc. On the other hand, it could have been about the material, as well as the visual effect.

Paul Klee was motivated to express mystical and spiritual ideas, through colour, line and symbols. He gave up representation early on.

Hilma Af Klint showed that painting could "directly express the spirit", and the appeal of her work is now being rediscovered.

So: I think abstract art allows greater flexibility and freedom for the artist, and the viewer of the art.

What's in it for Me (the viewer)?

An abstract sculpture or painting (or whatever), is usually a bit of a puzzle. You need to contemplate it for a while if you want to "get into it" and appreciate it fully. The more abstract it is, and the further you look into or think about it, the more you can enjoy thinking about it.

Or you can simply enjoy the aesthetics of it: be drawn into its immediate effects, and not think about it. It's then serving a bit more like a piece of decoration. Contemplating it in this way can become a little meditation, perhaps: a moment to stop the ceaseless thinking, to go with the flow of what's in front of you.

So looking at abstract art can let you can exercise your analytical mind, or it can help you step outside of yourself..

Three reasons

Representational art can, of course, exploit the techniques I've described above - and usually it must do, to some extent, if it is going to be pleasant to look at (unless part of its purpose is to revolt, shock or annoy, or to show ugliness).

But if a piece wants to "convince you" of its subject, so as to put you in mind of that object, place or scene, it has to restrict the other effects. The more representational it is, the more restricted it is.

Whereas Abstract art:-

  1. uses "universal" elements, like music, so can be more timeless by conveying moods and sense perceptions more directly

  2. discourages conceptual thinking, and narrative thinking, which encourages our minds out of the day-to-day concerns

  3. can serve as "just" decoration, as well as be a thought-provoker.

I love representational art (and semi-abstract, and all the shades in-between). Yet the freedoms of abstract art are always more appealing to me.

Feel free to comment....:-)

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