Art concepts only survive through their redefinition, and abstraction is overdue for a change.
In common language, used by both the general public and professionals, it means art without a depicted object. Fair enough but problematic, because most so called abstract art is not “abstract,” in the dictionary definition, but rather “concrete.” It may not represent, but it is something far from abstract. Colours, brushstrokes, shapes, materials are all presented as what they are; perhaps as more than they are but still concretely real. Representational art, belaboured as it is with references to an all too complex world, may perhaps be described as more “abstract” in principle.
Another definition, usually made with respect to primitive or tribal art, would characterize it as stylized, often symmetrical, very conventional and unchanging over time and geometrically regular. This kind of work is normally representation—it might depict totem animals or ancestor figures—but it is assumed to be “abstract” in comparison to a realism that renders the details of ordinary life. From this point of view an antique Kouros is more abstract than a Hellenistic carving of a water seller, for example.
I would like to propose that we move away from stylistic or descriptive markers of abstraction, and define abstraction as the negation of meaning.
Perhaps negation is too strong, too willful of a gesture. What lies in between the things that we know, in the blink, the momentary loss of attention? How many particulars does any particular thing have? Into what emptiness do we fall when we slip up? But this sounds too romantic. Either a will to negation, which sounds like an intention, or a quasi-mysticism, which stands in some special relationship to ordinary experience; both possibilities have already accumulated too much meaning in both art and life.
I would like to recall the words of Wallace Stevens, “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind.” The hum is all the good ideas and bad that already exist, the artworks of the past freighted with value and significance, the accusations and rebuttals, the arguments and explanations that fill the normal day, the hopes and fears of the mind between tasks, the minutiae of how that accompanies those tasks—the evasion of all that is abstraction. It is conscious and deliberate but still something found rather than made.
In this view, abstraction is the very definition of freedom, though I would not call that its meaning. It is rather a concrete and material gesture that has a place in both the mind and body. It is identifiable with the new. It is also the very morality of art.
There are excellent political reasons for this view. In a world where there are far too many institutions, and individuals, eager to define the meaning of everything, art has to find a free and undetermined space. Until recently, in western secular society, spiritual freedom could be more or less taken for granted, but today the ubiquity of religion poses a real problem. Religions give a meaning to life, to death, to sex, to work, to family, to free time, even to art; in fact it seems that the role of religion is to close off every moment of life with a systematic meaning. Even free will has a place. It goes without saying that the systematic nature of religions is politically disastrous today. Religions have to be swallowed whole; one cannot pick and choose which aspects to accept and which to reject, because all together they form a coherent system. But leaving religion aside, even the secular institutions of our society compulsively ascribe meaning. Entrepeneurship, and capitalist institutions in general, may be more interested in how to do things than in what they mean, but implicitly they teach that meaning emerges from success as they define it. Science likewise is not devoid of the impulse to ascribe meaning; at certain further reaches of science the ultimate meaning ascribed to the activity is aesthetic.
Art may be the exemplary space of freedom in our culture, but it is distressing how easily it can get caught in the flow of social meanings, even before it leaves the studio. Theories, narratives, intentions, personal memories and feelings, a kind of self indulgence that welcomes the emergence of one’s own personality in the work—these are all infringements of the artwork’s freedom, which means its capacity to become abstract in the definition I have proposed.
Abstraction then, is not easy to make. Perhaps no art is easy to make, but the difficulty of abstraction, which is also its attraction, is that difficulty itself is the point. In other words, the evasion of meaning can take the form of a very abstruse and distant thought. Yet visual art being what it is, namely visual, this thought, however reaching and difficult, usually reduces to a simple appearance. Difficulty and simplicity are the antithetical halves of great abstraction, leading to the formula that the best art looks simple but is really difficult, whereas the worst examples of conceptualism are exactly the opposite—they may look deep but really tell us nothing that we don’t already know.