“Why Abstract Art?” Part III: Abstract Purpose

What is the purpose of abstract art, you ask? There are many. Abstraction can be considered a collective reaction against the social enlightenment, since everything always has an explanation, abstract art puts something out there that can’t be explained simply. Since photography has become prominent, art has been freed from the responsibility of representation, because only a camera is needed. Now instead of the subject being the object of the artwork, the artwork became the subject of focus: “…when form, now recognized as independent, began to liberate itself from content, to become its own content—and its liberty, was bound to lead it to abstraction” (Vallier 10). Abstract art moved away from the subject matter to manifest “art for art’s sake.” Art and idea, form and function, and the interaction between form and idea, took on a whole new dimension: “the imagination, freed from all ties, is sheer impetus. It stretches the forms, propels them, and exalts the colors as though the unconstrained space of abstraction demands this launching into lyrical flight” (Vallier 294). Abstraction also puts stress upon the ideas and reactions and expressions in combination with the aesthetic form to present a total package that could be unwrapped by the viewer.

So what can we do to better understand and evaluate abstract art? Be willing to let go of any recognizable image. Recognize the power of line, spatial interaction, color, balance and composition, rather than content. For a moment, drop all the things that you know, that might seem familiar; drop anything that you would like to see in the piece; drop whatever is going on in your own mind; and absorb the abstract for what it is, without any strings attached, without any preconceived biases, and without fear that you may actually find yourself lost in the piece. Don’t pass the work upon first glance; the intent of many artists is to hold your attention, to make you look again, and continue looking—something will eventually happen. After this happens, then one may ponder the psychological meaning behind the piece: What is it of? What does it…signify? What does it express?…What is its meaning?” (Frascina 191). These are the questions to be pondered and considered.

Another element that may make cynical viewers upset with abstract art is the way in which it approaches the viewer. Traditional paintings are a window to another world, another moment, another place: viewed calmly through the lens of the frame, selecting an appropriate perspective and accepting the logical image before us. Abstract art is confrontational. It invades the viewer’s space; it goes all the way to the edge of the frame, its presence is loud and undeniable. The irrational lines and colors contradict any logical pattern or familiar image that the viewer’s mind attempts to conceive. This is where the viewer may become frustrated and annoyed, and may justify their own stubborn will not to take a second look, and to pass it off as “bad” art, or not as “art” at all. This confrontation of abstract art and viewer can be resolved if the viewer takes a little more time to look into the abstract piece, to explore its every asset and to discover the secrecies of its intricate complexities. The abstract piece is an enigma that must be figured out; it is a riddle that must be solved; it is a question that must be asked. These mysteries can only be investigated if the viewer is willing to open their mind and look again at the many possibilities the abstract piece has to offer.





Works Cited

  • Baxter, Gary. Personal Interview. 3 December 2002.
  • Frascina, Francis, ed. Pollock and After: The Critical Debate. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
  • Griefen, John Adams. “Art, Intuition and ‘Understanding.’” Art Students League. 02 December 2002. <http://newcrit.art.wmich.edu/plain/jgword.html&gt;.
  • Mackie, Alwynne. Art/Talk: Theory and Practice in Abstract Expressionism. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.
  • Rhett, John. Personal Interview. 22 November 2002.
  • Taylor, Roger L. Art, An Enemy of the People. Sussex: Harvester P., 1978.
  • Vallier, Dora. Abstract Art. New York: Orion Press, 1970.

3 thoughts on ““Why Abstract Art?” Part III: Abstract Purpose

  1. Rachel, I really enjoyed reading your paper excerpt on the value and techniques of abstraction. It really helped me to not feel so hemmed in as I take my first serious plunge into making my own art. I enjoyed seeing “Many Voices” at the April Showers showing. Once you helped me to get out of my “representational” straitjacket that piece started to work its magic on me, just as you describe in your thesis. I’d love to see more of your work close up.

  2. I started making abstract art a couple years ago, and when i decided to take it seriously i had major anxiety about my work, i kept asking myself, what is the purpose of this ?, do i have to be representing something?, will anyone take this seriously?, and reading this article just reminded me of everything i knew deep down but was afraid to accept. Abstract art is beautiful, to me its the best form of creativity, to come up with a piece of work that does not exist in the real world, but solely from your imagination is something amazing and beautiful. God is truly present in abstract art.

    • Hi @Jessica, thanks so much for sharing some of your struggles and breakthroughs in your abstract art journey. I too went through many times of questioning what I was creating and why. I think that when you decide on your own answers to those questions, it makes your art (and your resolve) that much stronger! Best wishes to you in your art journey! 🙂 –Rachel

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