The kind of people who wander through museums proclaiming “I could’ve made that!” love to criticize abstract art. Perhaps that’s because it’s so hard to define. What is abstract art anyway?
In contrast to landscape paintings or detail-for-detail recreations of famous events and iconography, abstract art focuses instead on the pure visual quality of the work, allowing colors and shapes to do the talking about what an image represent.
Strictly speaking, the word abstract means to separate or withdraw something from something else. The term can be applied to art that is based on an object, figure or landscape, where forms have been simplified or schematized.
It is also applied to art that uses forms, such as geometric shapes or gestural marks, which have no source at all in an external visual reality. Some artists of this ‘pure’ abstraction have preferred terms such as concrete art or non-objective art, but in practice the word abstract is used across the board and the distinction between the two is not always obvious.
Abstract art is often seen as carrying a moral dimension, in that it can be seen to stand for virtues such as order, purity, simplicity and spirituality. Since the early 1900s, abstract art has formed a central stream of modern art.
Jackson Pollock described abstract art as “energy and motion made visible”. He captured how the art form set free a part of his psyche that previously had no voice. Artists were no longer expected to faithfully represent what they saw in the world around them. Instead, abstract art gave them license to create art by prioritizing instinct or the unconscious.
There are many theoretical ideas behind abstract art. While some have taken the idea of 'art for art’s sake' (that art should be purely about the creation of beautiful effects), others have proposed art can or should be like music, in that just as music is patterns of sound, art’s effects should be created by pure patterns of form, colour and line. The idea, derived from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, that the highest form of beauty lies not in the forms of the real world but in geometry, is also used in discussion of abstract art, as is the idea that abstract art, since it does not represent the material world, can be seen to represent the spiritual.
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