Understanding Abstract Art

The term “abstract art” brings to mind patters of lines, colors, and forms splashed across a canvas with rules of the art form seemingly varying from artist to artist, and at times, from artwork to artwork. While this independence from the physical world is what defines the abstract genre from other forms of art, this same trait is what has made abstract art a target of negative criticism since the height of art forms focused on hyper-realism and perspective.

Abstract art however, has some of the oldest roots in the artistic scene. Basic patterns of lines on ancient pottery were used only to vaguely depict something in the physical world; zigzags of blue could represent water, and a simple stripe of black could be the night sky. The way in which the two may be arranged could be the ocean at night. This level of visual stimulus leaves more to the imagination of the individual than “traditional” art forms. This means that abstract styles are meant to project feelings and sensations rather than display objects.

This means that appreciation of abstract art requires a different take than admiring the hyper-realism of – for example – a painting of a bowl of fruit when compared to that which it was modeled after.

Take a real-life scenario: a man holds another at gunpoint. Here, the scenario is clear; there is a clearly stated model of firearm, and there is an absolute definition of intent when the former points the weapon at the latter. Such a scenario forces an imprint of itself onto the onlooker’s mind, stating that “this is reality.” That is the approach of perspective and realism toward art, and that is how fans of hyper-realism enjoy art.

Abstract art however, is more comparable to a real-life scenario where a person is standing, back turned to an alleyway, pitch black with some unidentifiable silhouette within; there is no clear danger. The silhouette could be a pile of trash, or, it could be a criminal with a knife. The person is no clearly defined either, and could be an innocent bystander about to fall in harm’s way; or he could be waiting for whatever is in the shadows. The onlooker doesn’t know. He/she sees the situation presented, but does not have access to pinpoint information, rather, is only given clues, and has imagination drive the scenario for him/her.

This trait is the strength of abstract art, allowing it to depict things in the real world that otherwise cannot be represented. The painting Disks of Newton, Study for Fugue in Two Colors by Frantisek Kupka for example, is a painting of several disks of vibrant color meant to produce a sense of whirling and spinning movements. Such subjects are difficult to capture with realistic imagery, but are easy to capture with abstract painting. The same painting is also meant to express Kupka’s claim of “find(ing) something between sight and sound,” as presented by the words “Newton,” and “fugue” in the title.

In that sense, the quality needed for a person to appreciate the abstract genre and all the styles that fall within its bounds can almost be defined as empathy. Because abstract art projects sensations, one is not able to truly connect with the art form with closed emotions. Take Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket by James Abbot McNeill Whistler. The cityscape painting depicts a fireworks display in London; that is discernible enough alone. However, abstract techniques were utilized in its creation in order to project the feeling of actually experiencing the movement of the sparks of the rockets in the sky. Without empathizing with the emotions Whistler must have had when painting The Falling Rocket, the full impact of the painting is lost.

As with all works of art, the abstract form requires a certain level of depth of though to comprehend. If the perception is too shallow, the meaning is unclear. If it is too deep, the message of the form is overshadowed by personal opinion. The trick to appreciating abstract art therefore, is somewhere deeper than admiration of the art, and somewhere shallower than interpretation. Is it empathy? Yes and no. Empathy definitely pulls the observer to the moment the artist created the art, but does not provide form; because form is provided by understanding.

Without understanding, everything in the world is formless and meaningless, just like the random lines and colors children draw with crayon. With it however, the lines become motion, and the colors become time. The blend of empathy and understanding turn anything – even abstract art – into something far more real than many “realistic” art forms can be.