The semantics of contemporary art criticism allow for so many meanings of “abstract” that one can just about choose for oneself how it is defined. Everything from a shark in a tank to a smudged landscape, from a perfect cube to a pile of oranges, from a walk across the Andes to the lights going off and on; all have been described as abstract art. I guess what is meant here (mostly) is that it is not a depiction or a representation in paint etc. of some recognisable other thing; in which case anything and everything can be abstract art because anything and everything can be art.
Is there a more useful way of defining it, or is it a redundant term? I once showed a book of the work of the quintessentially abstract (post-painterly) Kenneth Noland to a painter friend, pointing at one of those early and simple and beautiful “target” works. “It’s not abstract”, she said, “It’s a circle”.
This was a new and original point of view to me – a definition of abstract as “something unnameable”. It made me laugh at the time – Kenneth Noland, not abstract! – but it does actually bear examination. If one says that only newly invented form (for example) might be meaningfully described as “abstract”, since we cannot put a name to it, and it most certainly does not represent anything (how could it, being newly invented), then we would have to rule outside of the term “abstract “all of the art that does not invent new form. This would apply immediately to the shark in a tank, of course (which is patently figurative anyway), and would include all geometric art (since squares and circles and stripes and spots are all “known” things – I do like the extremism of this view); but it would also apply to a smudge of paint (which is “a smudge of paint”, until proved otherwise), this being no more abstract than a smudge of ketchup, until and unless it becomes part of a meaningful new form.
“Meaning” in painting and sculpture, abstract or figurative, is very much dependent upon the unnameable revelatory effects of visual form and their independence from literal (or literary) interpretation. The question is whether other kinds of art outside of those two disciplines can escape from the literal and into the fully abstract realm of visual disclosure. Open a book of good painting – any painting, abstract or figurative – and the “abstract-ness” of it is immediate. But the photograph of the painting is not an abstract thing.
In this argument (there could be many others) either all art of every persuasion could be abstract except representational painting and sculpture; or only painting and sculpture have that possibility, whether they are figurative or not.