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What on Earth Does it Mean? Understanding Abstract Art from an Artist’s Point of View.

This blog entry is composed of a series of themes which I’ve currently been thinking about regarding abstract art, which features a blend of the artistic and the mathematical. In brief, it is a blog entry attempting to understand abstract art. Academic discussions on such matters are unlikely to hold much interest for many readers, and so are bypassed. As it happens, I’ve tried to turn the focus around on interpretation, and ask an abstract artist on their own opinions, and especially how they would like their work to be (or not be, in some cases) interpreted.

If I am allowed an introductory ‘digression’ on the main theme of understanding abstract art (the reader is asked to follow the argument forward, even though it may initially seem detached), I’d like to draw focus to the following; an except from Lewis Carrol’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ which concerns a dialogue between Alice and the Red Queen:

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’
‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

The literary works of Lewis Carrol, the nom-de-plume of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, epitomise childish silliness. Besides being a novelist, Carrol was in fact a mathematician by trade, and had success in the field of logic. Given both his mathematical background and literary pursuits, Carrol provides weight to the adage that ‘there’s a fine line between genius and madness’. Even in the 19th century, mathematics was in such a state that the forefront of its field was impenetrable to nearly everybody without formal instruction in the subject, a fact that Carrol would have had familiarity with. Such imperviousness to public understanding has had profound effects on the blurring of ‘genius and madness’. Scientific advancement from the 19th century onward had been accelerated by an increased understanding of maths and its application, and so it became unnecessary to understand mathematics in order to appreciate its effects. One only had to appreciate the scientific end-result and this would be enough. As a consequence, that which could not be understood became associated with genius.

During this same period, a shift in the art world was occurring. A movement which saw art discard reality and assume an abstract mantle in parallel to realistic pursuits. Initially abstract art was reviled, although it could be argued that this was in response to a dislike of radical change, as opposed to an inherent disgust of this new aesthetic. As the 19th century turned to the 20th however, the popularity of abstract art would explode. The like of Picasso, Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning were to have their day.

To date, the majority of the 52 most expensive paintings ever sold are abstract in nature. By this metric, it’s clear that abstract paintings are the most sought after type of painting amongst serious collectors. But why? Is it possible that these paintings – impossible to relate with real-world phenomena – are considered to be genius because they cannot be understood? Does it even make any sense to ask the question ‘ what does an abstract painting mean?’ For the non-academician of art, nobody asks the same question of realist portraits because we somehow make the assumption that because we know what a face is, then it’s clear what the artist means. But of course this isn’t actually true at all. The painting still has a subtext but we ignore it; we assume we know what is meant because we’re familiar with the real world. If the amateur art enthusiast is honest when he or she comes to evaluating paintings, it might therefore make sense to make the distinction between understanding a piece, and being familiar with one. Extending this idea whilst thinking critically (of ourselves!) do we actually understand the majority of realistic paintings that we see, or are we merely familiar with them? I’m going to assume the latter, as I myself make this mistake quite often, at which point I hope to have illustrated that abstract art isn’t too different from any other form of art at all.

My old English teacher used to say that a piece of work isn’t completed until someone else has interpreted it. This was in response to a rather pertinent question about why we don’t just ask the author/artist themselves what they meant by their own work, instead of analysing something to death which might not have meaning to it. I’m going to break with tradition in asking an abstract artist, Terry Greene, based in West Yorkshire (UK), how he would like observers to treat his work in order to shed some light on how to make the distinction between being familiar and understanding a piece of art. Greene wrote:

I find that looking at art is not (or shouldn’t be) a passive activity, it requires you to be in the moment and reflect on the surroundings and your own thoughts and feelings and to assess them in regards to the work in front of you. I feel that only through time does a painting (abstract or other) begin to unfold and reveal itself – its narrative of its making, its history . . . Further, I would perhaps also ask the viewer to try not to just approach the painting through a purely intellectual analysis of the visual, but to attempt to be open to an unmediated interaction with its physical aspect: its immersive qualities; the physicality of paint and surface; its worldly aspect.

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That we should approach understanding a piece of art on our particular mood as well as what we’re thinking about at the exact moment of observation has a side-consequence. It includes the possibility that we might come across a painting and have absolutely no feelings about it whatsoever. Alternatively, we might have a particular feeling about a painting one day, and a different one the next. Such is the dynamic nature of art. Greene also reinforced this by stating that art should not come with any supporting titles or information to avoid biases – an approach also communicated by Rothko and Pollock respectively, who preferred to entitle paintings with numbers as opposed to a descriptive alternative, in order to preserve the unbiased personal experience.

Whilst this appraisal might obliterate or reinforce felt notions about abstract art, it primarily allows the option of disliking abstract art in its entirety. My personal feeling is that each and every one of us can find at least one abstract piece to relate to and even if we do,  there’s nothing to stop us from revisiting this relationship over-and-over again.

– Le Nouvel Artiste

Special thanks go to Terry Greene for providing his opinions, and adding an impetus to completing this blog post. He blogs under ‘Just Another Painter’.

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