Yes, some modern artworks look like they could’ve been created by an unskilled four-year-old in under ten minutes, yet some of these pieces are often sold for twice (or even thrice) your annual income. So what’s going on here?
Abstract art is a very contentious subject in the art world. While some consider abstract artists to be talentless hacks, others revere them as artistic geniuses. Trust me, I’m no abstract art fan myself, but I do find that many critics seem to be missing the point. So, here’s my take on it.
Since its origins, visual art has been a means to represent the world around us. Artists observed, and essentially copied, physical reality as best as they could. They honed their crafts until paintings and sculptures seemed to come to life.
Then came photography, replacing painting and sculpture as the main media for representing the material world. Why toil away behind a canvas for days when a camera could obtain a more accurate result in a fraction of the time? So, artists had to get creative so as to represent what cameras couldn’t capture, thus abstract art was introduced.
While abstraction was fairly new to the art world, it has been around for much longer in many other domains. For example, mathematics introduced it long ago with numbers. Humans extracted the general quality within quantitative sets and placed these truths under symbols we call numbers. For instance, humans saw three apples in a tree, three clouds in the sky and three berries on a branch. They then abstracted the commonality between all these instances and placed it under the much simpler placeholder “3” or “III” or “三” and so on.
Language also uses abstraction when it comes to letters and words. Music abstracted a world of sounds and noises to a defined set of notes. The same is true for time, lengths, volumes, colours, shapes, etc. They’re all concepts extracted from the physical world that can be applied universally. Although they aren’t concrete material objects, we wouldn’t say they aren’t real. In fact, it has long been argued that the field of mathematics is the most irrefutable field we know of based on how real concepts like numbers are.
It seems then that abstract art isn’t as innovative as we thought it was. Abstract artists are only doing what other fields have been doing for many millennia. Therefore, abstract art is an attempt at capturing concepts and ideas that ring true universally, yet aren’t tied to a single specific reality. Artists do so by doing away with any concrete data such as specific places and times, individual people, and even recognizable objects. They use colours, shapes, textures and arrangements to convey things that are, not only tied to one particular reality, but to all realities across time. For example, a realist artist may paint a scene of a bustling New York street in the 1940s, while an abstract artist might try to represent the universal feeling of being in a noisy environment without portraying any specific place. Say what you will of abstract artists and thinkers, but this is a challenging task. The complexity of this endeavour is perhaps why many find themselves perplexed when looking at abstract art in museums. Some abstract artists often go so far beyond identifiable reality in their attempts to create solely abstract pieces that the viewer is left with no parameters with which to understand the art piece. The work just seems like meaningless squiggles and shapes.
Another critique involves the time dedicated, as well as the skill level needed, for the creation of abstract pieces. Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow simply does not compare with Velázquez’s famous Las Meninas in terms of artistic prowess and effort. Yet, I find that criticisms of the like are irrelevant. Although Las Meninas definitely took more time to complete, the two artists didn’t have the same end-goal, thus their work and craftsmanship cannot be evaluated with the same criteria. Abstraction is all about concepts and ideas, therefore cannot be judged using concrete measures, such as how much time the artist worked on a certain piece.
Some also argue that abstract art simply isn’t as beautiful as realistic renderings are. To this, I argue that beauty is ever-evolving and incredibly subjective. The proof is that many choose to display abstract art within their homes entirely for their aesthetic value. Many abstract artists even fully deny the preconceived idea that art needs to be beautiful; art doesn’t need to be pleasing to the eye in order for it to mean something. To argue against such statements would mean delving into what is and isn’t art; this topic requires an entire article of its own.
Although abstract artists sometimes generate confusion and controversy, it can be argued that they have undertaken a major endeavour in trying to represent removed concepts, hence why they deserve some level of respect. Abstraction is incredibly difficult to manage successfully, thus meriting a certain amount of appreciation that goes beyond a simple analysis of how long it could’ve taken an artist to complete their artwork. Whether you hate it or love it, abstract art is more than just random colourful strokes, but a concept that transcends the canvas.
By Enrika Béland