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Abstract Art: Ground-Breaking or a Scam?

What is Abstract Art?

Abstract Art - Excalibur, Original Oil Painting by Curtis Verdun
"Excalibur", Abstract Art, Original Oil Painting by Curtis Verdun

Merriam Webster defines 'abstract art' as: "Expressing a quality apart from the object...". Some other definitions that are offered imply that abstract works of art "do not offer an accurate representation of the subject". I feel that that definition is completely erroneous. The opposite is truer. 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 can better describe complex thoughts and sentiments or the way music helps to more convincingly convey a deeply felt emotion.

Caricatures and Abstract Art

Consider a caricaturist. What he is able to do, if he's good at it, is to take almost any face and rather than produce an image that is entirely faithful to the "original", instead he recreates what he sees in a way that the particular attributes of the person's face are presented in a much more compelling way so that you might get a better view of the very essence of the person. Abstract painters have the same goal - to more effectively describe what may not be readily perceived by casual observance. That's not very easy to do.

Now, since his drawing doesn't match the original, would we say a caricaturist can't draw very well? On the contrary, we would say that he has a heightened ability to present what he perceives about the person he is drawing. Abstract? Yes! Abstracted from reality. Inaccurate? Well, that depends on what you need to see or know about the subject. 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 provide some insight as to the person's character, perhaps.

In the same way words can help explain a photograph, and since photographs indeed have their limitations, caricatures and likewise, abstract art, take on the challenge of going beyond producing a mere graphical display of the subject. They aim to reveal the true character of the subject to the viewer.

What about Abstract Music?

Music appreciation can actually help us to understand abstract art. If you were to imagine "realistic music" being defined simply and only as something like a flute mimicking a songbird, then, by that logic, 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 very few have trouble accepting them as art. Why then, should abstract paintings be so hard to accept? They are also artistic arrangements - just visual rather than of sound.

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 weren't copied from nature. They don't try to mimic naturally occurring sounds at all. They are completely the product of creative and artistic invention.

Now, in using those entirely new sounds, we have created all those great melodies composed over the ages. What is my point? If no one had ever created, from scratch, any new sounds other than to copy what they have previously heard, we would not have great melodies, symphonies, sonatas, jazz, rock and roll 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 might hear in nature. Now, correlate that to the visual arts and you can better understand why we have so many styles, forms and movements throughout the history of art, particularly modern 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. They awaken our souls! They make us dance! 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. It's expressive and often emotionally driven communication.

Most people can appreciate realism in art. But, as the image veers away from a clean and faithful depiction of the subject, some people begin to get nervous. Yet, as we see in music, the strict practice of duplicating reality doesn't fit the definition of art nor does it help to satisfy our need for visual communication. You need some degree of abstraction to accomplish that. Now, of course, abstract art isn't simply a lack of realism. If done well, it's a heightened depiction of what the subject really is. The goal is to offer the viewer a novel creative view of what the subject is all about, which may not be readily apparent at first glance.

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

Is Abstract Art in the Eye of the Beholder?

Even after hearing my argument, many would still feel that nonfigurative abstract art isn't "real" art. Well, consider this: If I faithfully painted just the pattern of a portion of a wall from the Grand Canyon and showed it to someone who has never seen rock formations of any kind, can they experience an "artistic response"? Of course. Realize, now, that they would have to define it as nonobjective or abstract art because to them it is unrecognizable as being any tangible object. It's abstract since they have never seen actual rock formation before. So, in essence, a work of art can be both nonobjective and realistic, depending on the viewer's vantage point or his lack of experience! The bottom line is that it is not only an association with the subject in a painting that provides the artistic experience and appreciation. It can also be simply the arrangement of color, textures and tone that offers the creative expression and the artistic response.

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. Much of the music we enjoy today was composed the same way.

Abstract Art is 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 almost as much involved with art as we have with food and survival.

So, what is art to us? 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

By our very nature, we are not 'copiers'. We create, we build, we invent, we draw...and we paint.

The more you consider that viewpoint, the better you recognize the strong validity of all art forms and as well, all forms of music. And that abstract art, and yes, even nonobjective forms of art, like it or not, have a rightful place in the art world. 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