Let's start by acknowledging that abstract art is outside the scope of this blog and outside the scope of my competence. However, I do like some abstract art. If you're willing to take a stroll with an uneducated man into a complex field, we may discover some interesting things together.
In my view, much of today's fine art scene is self-indulgent nonsense. The Museum of Modern Art in New York contains some great works of art, but the ratio of money to talent there is downright asphyxiating. Dollar for dollar, the art at the Society of Illustrators a few blocks away has more nutritional content. But there is no clear dividing line between art that illustrates a message or idea on the one hand and abstract art on the other. Here are some splendid illustrations that are not very different from the abstract paintings in my last posting:
Illustration of the descent of the divine power through a the symbolic fish-incarnation (from a 17th century Yogic manuscript).
Illustration of the evolution and dissolution of cosmic form from a 19th century Rajasthan book.
Vase painting from Athens in the 5th century BC
Cave painting circa 17,000 years ago.
Clearly, abstract art is no modern invention. It began when art began-- in the upper paleolithic period (from 35,000 to 12,000 years ago). More artistic and technological progress took place in those 25,000 years than in the previous 2 million years combined. That era saw the first explosion of symbolic (abstract) thinking and the accompanying birth of art. The designs and heavily stylized drawings scratched in the walls of ancient caves share a lot in common with today's abstract art. But unlike modern abstract art, which often seems detached and irrelevant, paleolithic art was close to the core of what it meant to be human. It was life-or-death relevant.
I have always liked Anthony Burgess' characterization:
Art is rare and sacred and hard work and there ought to be a wall of fire around it.
Abstract and conceptual art, when it is good, can satisfy that high standard. And since I've blabbered on too long today, I'll offer some thoughts next time on what "good" means to me in abstract art.