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What is the value in abstract art?

This week I took my 7th and 8th grade art students to visit the Modern art museum in Fort Worth. There were a lot of comments such as: “Anyone could do that,” “The artist put no effort into that,” “That is not art,” and “That is just ugly.”

I have come to believe that different types of art communicate in different ways, appealing to different parts of us, but there was a time when I saw no value in non-representational art. Perhaps what put me off was the vaguery of it, the widely subjective interpretations that it evoked, and, as regards some pieces, the lack of beauty or skill. I loved beautiful storytelling, precise vocabulary, and clear thought - in writing and in art - and abstract art did not always deliver these. However, during my sophomore year at university when I was a painting student in Chicago, I had a professor who loved, created, and helped me to appreciate abstract art.

The debate about “what is art?” has been going on for a long time, with many varied ideas expressed. These days I fall in neither with those who think that anything can be art, nor those who argue that the only real art is naturalistic and/or representational. My opinion on the matter is that art, be it representational, abstract, conceptual, etc., should communicate something of the good, the true and the beautiful to the viewer. Art that does this with adequate skill and thought, I would say, might be considered good art. In an abstract piece of art, the beauty is found (or not found, as the case may be) in the colors and how they work together, the contrast of light and darkness, the forms and shapes and how they interact with one another and the space around them (the composition), and in what a particular combination of all of these draws up from one’s own interior well.

Appreciating non-representational art requires the viewer to become involved with the art in what is perhaps a new way for her. It requires a willingness to allow for the role of something that is beyond the intellect but not irrational. This art appeals to a supra-rational, poetic knowledge, like the knowledge of faith, that there is truth and beauty, and that we are united in our pursuit of it.

After university, when I had first moved to St. Petersburg and my Russian was very minimal, I attended a reading of Pushkin’s poetry. At first, I struggled to interpret word-for-word each poem in order to understand its meaning. Some of you know from your own experience how tiring this is. I was soon mentally exhausted by my efforts, at which point I decided to give up translating. I began to just listen to the sounds and arrangement of the words with no regard for their literal meaning, and I was surprised at how pleasing this was. I had read Pushkin in English and loved his work, but I came away from this reading with a much greater love of Pushkin (and the Russian language), having basked in the pure lyrical genius of Pushkin’s arrangement of sounds.

The ability to enjoy the poetry reading required a letting go, a relaxation of my desire for the logical, and a sort of vulnerability. Perhaps the ability to enjoy abstract painting requires something similar. Often, when I see an abstract painting I like, if I am asked why I like it, I find myself saying things like, “I love the colors,” “It feels hopeful,” or “I love the use of light.” It doesn’t need to have a definable story or conjure up a particular scene to pull me toward the good, the true and the beautiful.

There are many other questions to consider in this vein - is there a place for ugly art? Is it art at all? What constitutes beauty? Is it really always subjective? How does questionable art get defined as art and sell for thousands of dollars? What does our definition of art say about us and about our culture? Why is art essential to a full life and a thriving culture? What happens to a culture when it begins to see anything as art? How valid is conceptual art, as art? And so many more…

If you have any good answers - or good questions - please let me know. I love to discuss and think about these things.

“A painting is not a picture of an experience, but is the experience.” ― Mark Rothko

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