The more horrifying this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract. – Ellen Key
Everyone has seen abstract art. Everyone — from the everyday person to the amateur and professional painter to the renowned art critic — has their opinion on whether they like it or not, understand it or not.
Abstract art, in essence, can be more difficult to understand. It is unlike most traditional visual art, almost removed from reality, separate from it — and most people aren’t always keen on deciphering its meaning. Some are made uncomfortable by the lack of an apparent subject matter in abstract artworks. Some scoff at it and think it isn’t worth their attention. Others are curious and fascinated by its possible hidden meanings and messages.
Regardless of your impression of the subject, you cannot deny the prevalence or significance of abstract art in the modern age.
What is Abstract Art?
By definition, abstraction means the distancing of an idea from its objective attributes. It is an idea that exists solely as a concept, independent from any real representation. Abstract art, therefore, is art that is distanced from the objective, real world. It is an art style that utilizes shape, color, form, and lines to create a result with no accurate visual representation in the real world. In other words, abstract art is a departure from reality.
While in realistic artwork, you understand what you’re looking at (at least on the surface) — such as a castle, a fair maiden, a herd of sheep, or a boat drifting on a lake — abstract art doesn’t have a clearly defined subject. It doesn’t draw from any visual references known to us.
History of Abstract Art
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact beginning of the abstract art movement. No one can name an artwork or even a ‘founding father’ of the style because, by the beginning of the 20th century, there were plenty of artworks that were abstract in some way. For example, the Picture with a Circle (1911) by Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian painter, can be considered one of the earliest purely abstract paintings. However, experts argue that the origins of the abstract style can be found even in the works of James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet, most notably in Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket (1875).
The peak of abstract art came in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, with an entire generation of Post-war era Abstract Expressionists in New York, such as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and others. Abstract Expressionism is characterized by mark-making and gestures, as well as spontaneous (more often seemingly spontaneous) brush strokes. An almost subconscious way of creating was favored; the emphasis was on the emotion, mood, and detachment from reality, rather than on artistic ‘set-rules’ or traditional techniques.
Abstract Art vs. Reality
An interesting notion is posed on the purpose of abstract art. The two golden eras of abstract art were between 1912 and 1925, then between 1947 and 1970. These golden eras were marked by horrific events in history, such as The Great Depression, World War I, and World War II. In light of such human suffering, pain, and desolation, artists found it increasingly challenging to depict their surroundings realistically.
Thus, they reached for abstraction, distancing themselves from the misery around them, to convey their emotions, beliefs, principles, and memory. In a way, abstract art can be seen as the means to digest reality; to cope with one’s emotions, especially negative ones, without having to interact with the source of the hurt and damage directly. As the German philosopher, Theodor Adorno put it, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” implying that gentle, romantic art cannot thrive after such horrors of humanity.
In times when it seems impossible to face reality, artists turn to abstract art to find peace with themselves, as well as the events that plague and jeopardize the normalcy in our world.
Abstract Art Shifts Perspective
Aside from being a form of relief or even an escape for artists, abstract art became the subject of interest in the scientific community. Several research papers looked into the effects of viewing abstract art and how it impacted the brain and thinking process.
A seminal study titled An objective evaluation of the beholder’s response to abstract and figurative art based on construal level theory from 2020 explores how abstract art affects the mindset compared to representational art. Scientists confirm that art can change the way we make decisions and perceive events. They discovered that abstract art, in particular, can psychologically distance the viewer from the details of everyday life. Instead, the viewer focuses on the broader picture, along with the emotions and concepts tied to where they currently are in life, without worrying about the practicalities.
What does the brain tell us about abstract art? A study from 2014, suggests that abstract art “frees our brain from the dominance of reality.” It “enables the exploration of yet undiscovered inner territories of the viewer’s brain,” — meaning that the viewer can tap into emotional and cognitive states they haven’t yet had the chance to explore.
Representational art offers us something that we are familiar with. In contrast, abstract art has no directly recognizable characteristics — a 2011 study says our eyes move more uniformly around the artwork as we’re searching for meaning in what we’re looking at. It engages our minds in ways representational art can’t.
The Meaning of Abstract Art
Since there are no subjects we can identify in abstract art, the meaning of it becomes subjective. Rather, that is the entire point of abstract art — that reality is, in fact, subjective. Anyone can make of it what they will because we are all different at the core.
So next time you’re looking at abstract art, don’t burden yourself with trying to find a universally accepted theme or subject. Instead, focus on what it means to you. What do you feel when you look at a particular abstraction? What form of reality does it describe to you? No two answers will be the same, which is precisely why abstract art is so invaluable to both artists and art audiences. It connects with the deepest parts of our inner being, pulls us out of our everyday routines, and makes us ponder the intangible and the indescribable.