Definition and Meaning


The term 'abstract art' - also called "non-objective art", "non-figurative", "non-representational", "geometric abstraction", or "concrete art" - is a rather vague umbrella term for any painting or sculpture which does not portray recognizable objects or scenes. However, as we shall see, there is no clear consensus on the definition, types or aesthetic significance of abstract art. Picasso thought that there was no such thing, while some art critics take the view that all art is abstract - because, for instance, no painting can hope to be more than a crude summary (abstraction) of what the painter sees. Even mainstream commentators sometimes disagree over whether a canvas should be labelled "expressionist" or "abstract" - take for example the watercolour Ship on Fire (1830, Tate), and the oil painting Snow Storm - Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842, Tate), both by JMW Turner (1775-1851). A similar example is Water-Lilies (1916-20, National Gallery, London) by Claude Monet (1840-1926). Also, there is a sliding scale of abstraction: from semi-abstract to wholly abstract. So even though the theory is relatively clear - abstract art is detached from reality - the practical task of separating abstract from non-abstract can be much more problematical.


What is the Idea Behind Abstract Art?


The basic premise of abstraction - incidentally, a key issue of aesthetics - is that the formal qualities of a painting (or sculpture) are just as important (if not more so) than its representational qualities.Let's start with a very simple illustration. A picture may contain a very bad drawing of a man, but if its colours are very beautiful, it may nevertheless strike us as being a beautiful picture. This shows how a formal quality (colour) can override a representational one (drawing).On the other hand, a photorealist painting of a terraced house may demonstrate exquisite representationalism, but the subject matter, colour scheme and general composition may be totally boring.The philosophical justification for appreciating the value of a work of art's formal qualities stems from Plato's statement that:"straight lines and circles are... not only beautiful... but eternally and absolutely beautiful."In essence, Plato means that non-naturalistic images (circles, squares, triangles and so on) possess an absolute, unchanging beauty. Thus a painting can be appreciated for its line and colour alone - it doesn't need to depict a natural object or scene. The French painter, lithographer and art theorist Maurice Denis (1870-1943) was getting at the same thing when he wrote: "Remember that a picture - before being a war horse or a nude woman... is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order."Some abstract artists explain themselves by saying that they want to create the visual equivalent of a piece of music, which can be appreciated purely for itself, without having to ask the question "what is this painting of?" Whistler, for instance, used to give some of his paintings musical titles like Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea (1871, Tate Collection). (See also: Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art.) a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. It’s easy. Just click “Edit Text” or double click me and you can start adding your own content and make changes to the font. Feel free to drag and drop me anywhere you like on your page. I’m a great place for you to tell a story and let your users know a little more about you.

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