“Art is not meant to be understood any better than understanding a bird’s song” – Pablo Picasso
Often at exhibits, I am asked what the meaning of an artwork is. I am flustered by that. It could mean that the artwork does not present itself adequately. Or, it could mean that the person is not gaining much from what they see. It is an age-old problem for artists, since many people with less experience viewing art presume that art is supposed to be akin to a story, or at least something that can be defined verbally. Some artists definitely create to tell a story, but sometimes art made that way borders on illustration.
If the work is abstract, it is impossible for the artist to explain it with any coherent language.
Picasso went on to say, “an artist usually starts an abstract artwork with some kernel of something and in the creative process removes anything that tries to create a reality”.
That leaves the obvious question, what is the point of an abstract artwork if it is not a pictorial of reality?
The art world has long accepted that art need not be about reality when it embraced dream-like artworks that were labeled as surrealism. Abstraction encourages the viewer to stay in their own inner world, which enables a more powerful and authentic response to the artwork. An artwork doesn’t need to be enjoyed, but it is important for the viewer to feel something from the experience of seeing. Abstraction is intended only for the viewer’s feelings, and has no intention to impact rational thinking, verbal memory, or conceptualization.
A parallel situation is when you listen to music that contains no story, no lyrics, and no meanings, such as a Mozart symphony or concerto. The composer creates the music to impact your feelings, and not to explain anything to you.
Since this blog post is about feelings, how can you really determine the quality of an abstract artwork and non-verbally define why it is strong or not? Fortunately that is an easy thing to learn. And the criteria involved is what artists learn to use consciously or intuitively.
Generally you can think of visual art as consisting of two quite ponderable areas. One is the formal, which includes things like colors and shapes. The second area contains the temporal aspects of the artwork. Your evaluation of the temporal values is done by asking yourself how you are reacting. At this juncture, you are focused not on what you see. Instead you are concentrating on what you feel regarding what emotions, sensations and memories you are getting.
For a quick introduction, here is an example of an imaginary person telling her companion what her reactions are. “I am really drawn to this artwork, but I’m not sure why.” Her companion advises her to break her reactions down. “Well I know that how a shape may be shaded to indicate its three-dimensional form, and the shading on this circular brush stroke feels a little too ordinary for me. On the other hand, I like that the brush stroke has rough edges to it that adds some sense of drama, and the rag-like texture in the box shape next to it seems to mate up very well.” She studies the artwork more and says ”you know, the more I look at this in detail, the more I feel a sense of foreboding that eventually resolves itself to a calmer feeling. I was wondering why I might feel that way. Then I felt it could be from the large area on the right side that is a smooth texture-less pale blue color that the rest of the composition seems to navigate towards.”
What has she done that helped her search her feelings? The key was that she let her eye roam around the artwork, sometimes more aware of the whole and at other times giving her intention to sections and even details not easily seen at first. By using her slow scanning and stopping here and there, her reactions as feelings were rapidly expanding. Added to that, her appreciation of the artwork, in positive or negative terms, was decidedly gaining depth.
The temporal part is not something that can be defined in the concrete way the formal elements are evaluated, but you should be able to explore your own reactions to judge what you see.
The formal side is a lot more specific and gives you greater certainty about your judgments of the work. There are specific elements that constitute the formal side:
1. Ask yourself if there seems to be some form of intention existing in the artwork’s composition. An abstraction that is not good doesn't seem to have a real intention, no obvious effort to make you feel this or that in specific places as your eye roams the art.
2. Then look again without actually thinking or analyzing. Decide if the composition seems to have been done consciously. It should not feel like it has been random or accidental.
3. Do the colors seem to work together in a way that affects your emotions convincingly? What mood do you feel from the overall tint of it? Is it yellow-ish, or green-ish, or ? What is the mood of the individual sections?
4. Are there textures that seem to be worked out deliberately that are also affecting you in a substantial way?
5. You can proceed to examine in the same way the shapes, lines, the edges of shapes, the two or three dimensional aspects of the whole work and it's various parts, the perspective, the luminosities, and even the dense or transparent densities.
The final evaluation asks you to consider the optics. These can include things such as how the artwork is presented to you. This means things like: does it seem that the right reflectivity was used, for example in a glossy or mat surface photograph? How was the brush used? How is it framed? And what about the finesse (or lack of it), does it appear sloppy in some way or refined (even though a rough idea or compositional crudity is intended)? Is there a surface texture of thick rough paint alternating with a flatter paint application? You can invent your own ideas about the overall impressions you are left with.
This will have you looking at the artwork longer than you have in the past. Ultimately a good abstract is a felt experience that lies in your conscious and unconscious memory. And how it plays out over time is likely to be rather different from creative expression using illusions to reality, or containing stuff you can remember and describe verbally.
A summation of the work establishes its value to you. A music analogy helps to understand the summation. If you go to a concert in which there is only the music and no lyrics or other non-sound contributions, and after hearing the concert you find yourself uplifted as you walk out, then that music had a high value to you. You can do the same with a visual artwork.
Another quality to use in summing up your feelings is asking yourself about the depth of personality the artwork has. If it seems to be bland in feeling, that may be a questionable work, unless that was the precise intention and conception of the artist. That is especially true with work defined as minimalism.
Before leaving this blog I must amplify on two short topics related to abstract work.
First, how do you employ this information when the artwork is both abstract and representational, meaning the artwork contains things that are recognizable and other elements that are not? You get around that conundrum by not trying to define or name those things you can recognize. Instead, just absorb them in your feelings. This is certainly the challenge of a lot of my projects, in which I combine both representational and abstract. But my intention is always to affect your feelings and not give you anything that can be verbalized. What I intend to happen is that you'll appreciate the abstraction as a whole, because its feelings appeal to you, and that anything that is recognizable has no meaning for you to define. Instead, the recognizable things are there purely as abstract metaphors. Those metaphors depend upon you to conjure up your own imagination for what they may signify.
And secondly, think about complexity and its use (or non-use) in an artwork. Art can be complex or simple, these are two ways to express feelings, and both are equally valid. Decide which one is more to your liking. Typical scientific research testing of people's reactions to seeing art reveals that there are more people who react well to simple compositions. On the other hand, people who are willing to take more time to let their eye roam around, slowly absorbing what they see, indicate that they prefer artworks which are more complex. They find the greater detail more intriguing and interesting, and leave you with more to ponder. As an artist, I can do both and sometimes do, and sometimes I make artworks that stand in the middle. But in all cases, I'm making them that way because I am consulting my own feelings and experiences through my intuitions.
The power of abstraction allows me to unconsciously create metaphors and hidden meanings I would have no way to define. Every line, form, color and other formalities combine in subtle ways to produce feelings and reactions beyond my ability to explain their purpose. In that sense, every abstract artwork projects onto every viewer something different, and every viewer's reactions, when phrased in a detailed way, indicate there are no two reactions exactly the same. That introduces the idea that improvisation also is at work in abstraction.