Abstract Art


I don’t remember the first time I encountered art, but I remember I always preferred the representational stuff — the stuff that looked like something. So for example, I’d prefer a realistic portrait or sculpture to an abstract painting or modern piece. In fact, when it came to abstract art, the only stuff I liked was the kind of work that messed with my perspective or stuff that just looked nice. The rest of the stuff was just confusing and I tended to ignore it.

This went on for many years, until I read Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer believed that the world was full of suffering, all of which was due to the will. This will was something that could be temporarily quieted by contemplating works of art. I thought that was interesting, and decided that I’d have to try to contemplate art “one of these days”.

Much later, I read some of the articles on Steve Armstrong’s blogs. His perspective on art was interesting, and I decided that I’d have to go check out some abstract art “one of these days”.

What finally did it was when I happened upon this article, which made a case for abstract art contemplation.

“One of these days” finally came.

A Trip to the Museum

A few weeks later, I went to an art museum and headed straight for the abstract section. My mind was open, my judgment suspended, my attitude receptive. I was here to LOOK.

And look I did. I saw a lot of stuff, but the stuff that made the most impression fell into two classes, which I’ll call the Rorschachs and the waking dreams.

The Rorshachs were like faces in clouds; they almost looked like something. I kept trying to see the “faces”. Sometimes I did, and they were bizarre.  Other times, I simply watched myself trying to find them.

The waking dreams on the other hand were representational images in nonsensical juxtapositions.  They looked like dreams and they evoked the most interesting experiences in me. For example, while viewing one piece I had what can best be described as a waking dream. I suddenly knew what was outside the world of the painting, which made the whole painting click in an epiphany. Then the dream and the epiphany vanished, and I struggled to bring back that  “aha!” of a second ago. Another piece invoked a feeling/memory from my childhood that never happened but felt like it should have. It was vague yet precise. It should have happened when I was 7, but the memory is more of a feeling-tone during a long period, a non-existent era.  I felt nostalgic for a part of my past that never was, and mourned this never-was. That feeling was more persistent; I can still feel it now.

Second Guessing

Yet despite my attempt at being receptive, my mind was racing. I still kept trying to get images, or cling to fascinating feelings or emotions the paintings invoked in me. Worse, I kept second guessing. Questions that went through my head:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. Is this what the artist intended me to feel?
  3. Is this really art?
  4. Couldn’t I just stare at clouds or other random arrangements and get this experience?
  5. Couldn’t I view this stuff online?
  6. Am I taking it seriously only because it’s in a museum?

But why was I asking? If I had an experience, why couldn’t I leave well enough alone and enjoy the experience for its own sake? Why was I now going to things outside experience to justify or even decide if I was “allowed” to appreciate the experience?

Besides, wasn’t every act of perception shaped by innumerable conditions? For example, if I see a movie, aren’t my expectations part of the process, and don’t they shape my viewing experience accordingly? If I enjoyed a movie because of its originality, isn’t that only because I did not see comparable movies that preceded it? I think fondly of the songs of my youth because of the whole matrix of experiences that made me value pop culture then — they were no better than songs of today. Even my breakfast can alter my mood and change how I perceive the rest of the day.

Experience and events are a product of causes, yet it is common to focus on thing as the cause, especially where people are concerned. In viewing the art, I was trying to assign a single cause for my reaction — the “art itself”. I was doing this because I was trying to judge the art, rather than taking the whole day as a full experience in all its complexity. Yet, everything contributed to my experience. The way the museum looked. The fact that I was physically there, the curators, the creaky floors, the art, what I read to inspire me, and so on.


Recently, livelysceptic wrote this post on music. When I read it, I had an epiphany; I had long appreciated one type of abstract art — music!  Music without lyrics was the abstract counterpart to music with lyrics.  Music sans lyrics was abstract, it communicated feelings, and I never had a problem simply letting go with it. For whatever reason, I didn’t do this with the visual stuff.

Abstraction is the process of isolating the essence of something. For example, addition is the abstraction of the common operation of accumulating things like apples or oranges.  Maybe abstract art is the abstraction of a feeling from the concrete media (like representational painting or story) that normally delivers it?  If it works, it may be the closest thing to a direct, wordless thought transmission and may be the only way to truly communicate the ineffable to those who get it.  Of course what people get may not be what was intended…

Maybe I still do not “get” abstract art. I still do not know what art is. However, I enjoyed my experience, and learned a bit more about just being. That is enough.

12 thoughts on “Abstract Art

  1. I, like you, have never understood abstract art. I tried, it just never clicked. I think your last paragraph is one of the best explanations of what it is I’ve ever seen and will definitely help me to appreciate it more. The lack of aesthetic receptors in my brain may impair my experience, though.
    I can’t wait to see what Steve has to say about this.

    1. Thank you.

      I get the feeling that I also lack aesthetic receptors.

      I also really hope that Steve comments. He always manages to add something in his comments that gives me one more thing to learn about, and considering how much he covers art, I would REALLY love to read what he has to say about all this.

  2. Very interesting, BR! You have a way with words when you describe your experience.
    Your description of going to a museum made me think of something I’ve seen quite often: a woman wandering around showing all kinds of different facial expressions and a man explaining to her what she’s looking at: “Well, it’s easy to see how this is an early Mondriaan…”
    The explanations are almost always about biography and context and they make me smile. Paintings are not the only thing one can enjoy when visiting a museum. 🙂
    When I read your questions I think about how some abstract paintings seem to have an effect on almost anyone looking at them. (One name that springs to mind is Paul Klee.) I wonder if there is something there that could be compared to music.
    Should you ‘get’ art? Should I or anyone else? Are there right and wrong responses? Are aesthetic receptors real? Questions, questions…

    1. Thank you, and thanks for writing that music post that got things to click with me. It added a big piece to that puzzle.

      I hear you about the explanations and biographies. One thing I kept trying to avoid was reading any details on the pieces because I wanted to just experience the piece as much as possible without structures of expectation — although they were already in place by all the other factors 🙂

      I just looked a some of Paul Klee’s stuff. I liked it, but is this liking an effect? I definitely think there’s an aesthetic quality to his stuff, but are we talking aesthetics or art? What’s the difference?

      As for the music comparison, are you speaking of Klee’s work or art in general? I imagine there is something in visual art that could be compared to music. In both cases, it’s sensory information that evokes something, and in both cases, this information can be delivered in a way that either gets the logical, interpretive mind in on the act, or tries to bypass it.

      Your questions are good ones, and I have no hope of answering them. Even “getting” art is something I can’t answer. On the one hand, a receptivity to experience is important, but on the other hand, structuring experience could give one a deeper appreciation. It’s like watching a game of chess — it’s a lot better when one learns the move, or ‘gets’ the game.

      Who knows?

      1. Hi BR! I just came back to try and compose an answer and I found Steve Armstrong’s comment. I suppose that’s all the answers you could wish for! 🙂 Really great.

        Just to clarify what I tried to say about Paul Klee and music: I was thinking that Schopenhauer and Nietzsche would call music the most unveiled of the arts because it doesn’t rely on language or concepts (my inadequate description) when abstract works like Paul Klee’s seem to have an effect on almost everyone looking at them. I wondered if these works somehow represent something of a musical quality, even though I have no idea what it is they represent.
        – Just as I thought, this is one reply that does its best to muddle everything. Sadly, it’s the best I can do at the moment…

  3. Wow. I’m flattered that such thoughtful people are looking forward to my comments. I also feel grateful to be part of this nurturing community. Let this be an excuse for such a long comment.

    BR, I think your conclusion is right on, “I still do not know what art is. However, I enjoyed my experience, and learned a bit more about just being. That is enough.”

    On a personal note, a lot of my art wants to be about ‘just being’. It’s kind of a vague subject, and in fact, my art might actually be about ‘not being’ to some extent. I’m definitely going to think about this and probably write something. Your comments have helped me realize that there may be a Surrealist component in my work besides its interest in visual perception issues. I find this surprising, even though it shouldn’t be – it’s been staring me right in the face. My work has always had subject matter in the standard sense of, “It’s a picture of a barn,” or, “It’s a picture of a buggy.” I’d never drawn the obvious conclusions from my planning process. Honestly, there have been occasions in art galleries where my companion has commented on the subject matter, and I was surprised that it had any. I had been seeing some work or other as just a painting. Enough of personal notes.

    If you don’t know what art is, you are on the right track. I think it’s the people who never think about art who are positive they know exactly what it is, partially from their firm knowledge from what it is not.

    Nietzsche thought art was replacing religion and this implies that it may be just about as real as God Himself. Duchamp said that art was a recent idea and he didn’t believe it actually existed.

    Opinions in the art world cover pretty well all the options. To use pairs of examples that jump generations, some think all art is political (Heulsenbeck, Kruger), some think it’s never political (Schwitters, Judd), some think art is about art (Whistler, Reinhardt), some think art is a commodity (Bouguereau, Kinkade, Hirst (I just had to add all three)), some think it isn’t (Tzara, Art&Language), and some think strange things indeed. Kandinsky, the painter of the world’s first abstract painting, in 1911, I think, was a theosophist, as was Mondrian so their non-mimetic paintings, which were highly influential on the development of Formalism in the twentieth century, were actually busy setting up the appropriate vibes to transport us to the etheric and astral planes.

    Interestingly, Kandinsky also thought expressionism had no place in art, probably because “feelings in” and “feelings out” is just another kind of alienated subject matter like barns and buggies. I agree with him on this point. I’m having trouble thinking of artists who think that the expression of feelings is a good thing for art to do, but I definitely have a bias here. To be brutally honest, my gut feeling is that artists who think they are communicating feelings are amateurs, what Barnett Newman called, “buckeye painters”.

    German Expressionism was political, Abstract Expressionism was the ‘expression’ of the artist’s performance, and for good measure, Impressionism was a pseudo-scientific exploration of perception in reaction to the challenge of photography and the availability of both new and traditional pigments already prepared in tubes. I don’t think I ever experience feelings when I look at art, and after wading through the reams of dreck in magazines, galleries and museums, the occasional feeling of awe in the presence of a particular piece, is actually an ‘aha’, an intellectual eureka.

    I’m an amateur when it comes to music, and I do experience feelings when I listen to something like Schumann’s fourth symphony, but I also suspect that he was actually on about how narrativity seems to spring like an epiphenomenon from the tropes of musical momentum. That may not make sense, but like I say, I’m an amateur. I also have little time for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition because the more mimetic music tries to be, the less it’s about music and the less interesting it is.

    Ah, but now I think about things a little further. Copeland’s Appalachian Spring is beautiful, beautiful in the same way as spring is. But the music doesn’t make me feel the specific feelings about spring such as relief winter has passed, hope for the future, and that sort of thing. The feeling of beauty itself precedes the other more specific things. Schumann’s Fourth is sad, but it is also beautiful. The sadness is collateral damage, you might say. Sad/happy: is that sufficient reason to create a work of art?

    For an ecstatic moment, I thought I had just come up with a new theory of beauty, but it is not to be so. I realized I’m a Kantian, which isn’t all that surprising since Clement Greenberg speculated that Modernism’s first articulation was Kant’s Critique of Judgment. For an independent study undergraduate course I boiled Kant’s critique down to one sentence. I’ll share it with you: Aesthetic judgment is deciding the conformity of a representation to our cognitive faculties not by the application of a rule, but by the commensurated experience of delight or aversion through the free play of imagination and understanding apart from any interest in the existence of the thing, and apart from any concept about the thing. It wasn’t all that hard to do – he gave it all away in the section headings. If you buy it, there’s no need to read to arguments why it’s the case. I did read the arguments, of course, because I’m diligent in my search for rationalizations of my opinions.

    Thank you BR, for the link to my blog, and also for the link to that Greenberg essay which I just now read. I may have lost my ability for independent thought somewhere – I’m a Greenbergian and a Kantian. And Greenberg, of course, was a Kantian. Compare what he says with my précis of Kant’s Critique. I was also going to mention Baudelaire’s thoughts on judgment, but Greenberg beat me to it. Baudelaire went on to say that a visitor to a picture gallery who solemnly spends equal time with each piece doesn’t have a clue how to look at art. Stroll and scan, until something grabs you. That’s my advice. Then you will also be in a better position to ponder what’s lacking in things that don’t grab.

    Lively Sceptic, I discovered Paul Klee around grade 10 in high school, and worshiped him. Hundreds of pen-brush-ink on paper things poured out of me – abstracts, whimsical images, concrete poetry and asemic texts. I still find some of them charming.

    And finally, because enough is enough already, BR, aesthetics is theories of the artness of art, and art is art. Ad Reinhardt would say “Art as Art”, nice book.

    This comment has been a while coming. Life gets in the way sometimes.

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