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Abstract Art

What is Abstract Art?

Merriam Webster: "Expressing a quality apart from the object..." It's a matter of painting not strictly what is seen, but rather the essence of the subject.

Some definitions of abstract art are offered as, for instance, a work of art where the image is "not an accurate representation of the subject". I feel that this definition is completely erroneous. The opposite is more true. Good abstract art should provide the viewer with a better "representation" of the subject, an image that better characterizes the subject, similar to the way poetry better describes thoughts or the way music helps to convey an emotion.

Abstract Art
"Excalibur", Abstract art, oil painting by Curtis Verdun

Caricatures and Abstract Art

Consider a caricaturist. What he is able to do is to take a face and rather than produce an image that is totally faithful to the "original", recreate the image in a way that particular attributes of the person's face are presented more convincingly so that you get to see the real person. Abstract painters have the same goal - to describe what may not be readily perceived by the viewer.

Would we say a caricaturist can't draw? On the contrary, we can say that he has a heightened ability to present what he perceives in the person he is drawing. Abstract? Yes! Inaccurate? That depends on what you need to know. For example, a caricaturist doesn't attempt to tell you exactly what the surface of the subject's forehead is like. He has other things to say -  that is, to "explain" the person's character. 

In the same way words can help explain a photograph, since photographs indeed have their limitations, caricatures and likewise, abstract art, intend to go beyond a mere graphical display of the subject. They aim to reveal the true essence of the subject to the viewer.

Abstract Music?

Music can actually help us to understand abstract art. If you were to imagine "realistic music" being like a flute mimicking a bird, then much of history's great melodies would have to be considered as "abstract music". They are not copies of natural sounds. They are fabricated, original, artistic arrangements of sound, yet no one has trouble accepting them as art. Why then, should abstract paintings be so hard to accept? They are also artistic arrangements - just visual rather than aural.

Let's consider music further. Practically all the sounds emanating from the many sources of music, from orchestras to rock bands, are new creations. Those sounds do not exist in nature. They don't even try to mimic naturally occurring sounds (usually)! They are completely the product of artistic invention. Now, using those new sounds, we have created all those great melodies composed over the ages. My point? If no one had ever created, from scratch, any new sounds other than to copy what they previously heard, we would not have great melodies, symphonies, sonatas, or even dramatic music scores for movies! We are surrounded by "abstract music" or "nonrepresentational music" - sounds that were musical inventions, and I stress again, not copies of what we hear in nature. Now, correlate that to the visual arts and you can better understand why we have so many styles, forms and movements of modern art, particularly abstract art.

Now, back to music. Why do we invent sounds? Why do we appreciate these new sounds? Because great melodies communicate the intangible - emotions, thoughts, moods. We can relate and we experience a higher level of being. Don't we all "get" music? Abstract art, even nonfigurative art, should likewise be fairly understandable. The goal of abstract art is to communicate the intangible, that which eludes the photograph and normal seeing. For the artist and the audience, there is a new form of communication.

Most people can appreciate realism in art. As the image veers away from a clean depiction of the subject, some people begin to get nervous. But as we see in music, reality doesn't define art and abstract art isn't simply a lack of realism. It's a heightened depiction of what the subject really is. The goal is to offer the viewer an image of what the subject is all about, which may not be readily apparent.

To an abstract artist, the real image of a subject is locked up in the visual code which is all that our physical eyes see. But, the natural visual world can't fully display character or emotion. The abstract painter seeks to construct, or perhaps reconstruct, an image that better describes the subject, with less emphasis on what is seen and more on the very essence of the subject.

Eye of the Beholder

Still, many feel that nonfigurative abstract art isn't "real" art. Consider this. If I faithfully painted just the pattern of the walls of the grand canyon, and showed it to someone who has never seen rock formations of any kind, can they experience an "artistic response"? Realize, now, that they would have to define it as nonobjective or abstract art, regardless of how beautiful it appeared, because to them it is unrecognizable as being any tangible object. So, in essence, a work of art can be both nonobjective and realistic, depending on the viewer's vantage point or his experience! The bottom line is that it is not only an association with the objects in a painting that provides the artistic experience and appreciation. It can also be simply the arrangement of color, textures and tone that supports the "artistic expression".

Rather than produce a faithful reproduction of what can be seen, the abstract artist focuses on what can be felt and tries to portray that. Music is composed the same way.

Abstract Art: Creative Invention

Art, including abstract art, and musical creations serve a purpose and satisfies an inherent need in humans. We yearn to create and express ourselves artistically and we also seek the artistic experience provided by others. It is how we communicate on a deeper level. As I like to say, "art is the only means by which one soul can truly touch another."

We are inherently social creatures and as such we constantly seek ways to communicate creatively. Throughout our history we have been as much involved with art as we have been with food and survival. Well then, what is art? Is it merely a pretty picture? Or is it more? If we had to write a two word summary of the history of man's artistic journey, in music and in art, which of the following two statements would best fit?

  • Man copies
  • Man creates

When you consider the answer you realize the validity of all art forms and as well, all forms of music. And that abstract art, and yes, even nonobjective art, like it or not, have a rightful place in the world of art. Indeed, the basic tenet of abstract art is at the very core of what art itself is - creative invention.

It is only by the altering of what we see that we really create art.

Curtis Verdun


Galerie Verdun, Contemporary Fine Art Gallery
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