Human emotion is richly nuanced and multi-faceted. It is thus a commonly accepted fact that words cannot express the full breadth of the human condition. Great writers have set themselves apart by making valiant attempts, inherently limited in their execution by words available to them in their language of choice (or, more broadly, words available in any language). These writers are able to evoke inexplicably textured feelings in the reader, often by combining mundane words in novel ways to convey complex ideas. This technique is also commonly used to question implicit assumptions in everyday life and draw attention to frequently overlooked contradictions, which can itself generate deep feeling. However, imaginative wordplay cannot ascend beyond the constraints of language: higher-level structures like syntax and grammar create a lower bound on the amount of literary structure necessary for conveying information (some writers push this bound, but I believe there is still a clear delineation between sense and nonsense). To summarize: there are things that even the most inventive writing cannot convey with any degree of fidelity.
The realm of visual art and painting in particular has long been portrayed as the solution to this problem, as the adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ suggests. However, it was not until a recent exploration of abstract expressionism that the real meaning of this phrase hit me. Art is not simply a replacement for words, but a medium to achieve what words cannot. The transcendence of vocabulary is one of the truly beautiful aspects of art.
Abstract expressionism thrusts this facet of art into the forefront, as it strips away many of the “traditional” aspects of art: form, object, sometimes even color. This movement has given me much personal inspiration and a new appreciation the abstract.
This essay is not intended to make an art history argument for or against any movements, nor assess the artistic or aesthetic quality of any bodies of work. Instead it is my attempt to contextualize abstract art for myself and codify some lessons learned. I draw heavily from the works of Barnett Newman, a prominent abstract expressionist who showed me the way.
Lesson 0: Only the Artist knows what a work is about
The popular definition of abstract art is broad and roughly defines the genre by what it is not: realistic, concrete, definite. The implication is that abstract art is defined by how it looks, rather than what it represents.
However, this notion is quickly dispelled upon listening to the artists discuss their work.
Newman explains that abstract art is “an attempt to change painting into a poetic language, to make pigment expressive rather than representational” (88). Much in the way that poetry fosters epiphany despite (or due to) ambiguity of interpretation, abstract art offers empathy and contemplation while remaining at times painfully non-distinct.
In Newman’s mind, the core determinant of abstract art is not the style in which an image is rendered on the page, but rather the substance of the subject being conveyed. Abstract refers to what the art is about, not how it is made.
Lesson 1: Lack of Object != Lack of Subject
The lack of a representational object in abstract art does not mean it lacks subject. Instead, the lack of object proportionally increases the importance of the subject. As stated above, abstract art deals with subject matter that is itself abstract, not rooted in the physical world.
“To [the abstract artist] a shape was a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier of the awesome feelings he felt before the terror of the unknowable. The abstract shape was, therefore, real.” (108)
This quote from another of Newman’s essays illustrates the paradigm of abstract artists well. The subject is not missing, it is just a complex emotional state or idea rather than anything we can name with a single word. I believe this is a powerful concept, as many things in this world defy the language we have to express them either due to ephemerality or complexity. Importantly, this limitation applies to subjects both scientific and spiritual.
The underpinnings of the physical world are as opaque and difficult to represent as those of the spiritual world. Art, and nonrepresentational art in particular, can be used to better explore and ultimately communicate the answers to big questions, such as the nature of consciousness, origins of life, and validity of spirituality. This investigation gives me great energy.
Lesson 2: Technical Ability is a precondition
While the composition of these paintings can at times look elementary (Malevich’s Black Square), they are technically complex and require deep introspection and imagination. Not only must the artist know themselves fully, they must discover a way to use their technical abilities to recreate that feeling in the minds of strangers.
A documentary on Basquiat underscored the level of intentionality that goes into even seemingly haphazard works – according to those who watched him paint, each stroke was steady and measured despite its chaotic appearance.
Lesson 3: Beauty is derived from emotion in addition to (or instead of) appearance
How can an artwork without concrete form cause emotional reaction in the viewer?
By treating the artwork itself not as the end product, but rather a transmission device for the subject of choice. Lines and colors no longer represent visual objects, but are used in their own right to project the thoughts and feelings of the painter into the mind of the viewer, without loss of information (although always subject to interpretation) (87)
While it is a bit hard to think of an image “projecting” emotion into the mind, this is exactly what music does with sounds. Music is a very abstract medium and is commonly understood to convey emotion. Abstract art is quite similar, although I think less commonly understood.
The abstract artist is concerned with achieving beauty through impact and effect, not strictly from the visual impact of their work. A quote from Newman intended to rebuff art critics calling his work un-aesthetic illustrates this: “Aesthetics is for the artist as Ornithology is for the birds”.
In summary, abstract expressionism caused me to think deeply on the nature of art and its place in my life. It is valuable because it acknowledges the limitations that are inherent to most human communication and seeks to break these limitations by shirking the constraints of embodied reality in lieu of raw, uninterpreted sensations. Abstract artists seek to transmit these uninterpreted sensations to the viewer through their images. This requires deep introspection and self-knowledge, a worthy endeavor for all.
Newman, B., O’Neill, J. P., & McNickle, M. (1992). Barnett Newman: Selected writings and interviews. Berkeley: University of California Press.