What do people see in abstract art?

At the moment I’m reading this book:

Has modernism failed? The jury is out

Has modernism failed? The jury is out

It is very thought provoking. It is very well-written and not above my intellectual level, which is refreshing after all the art books I have read recently. The book talks about the self-centeredness of the art of the modernist era (the book was written in 1987 during the early years of postmodernism). It surmises that modernism failed because it was seduced by the attraction of the commodification of art. The modernist artist, it argues, became increasingly disconnected from the viewer and increasingly a capitalist. The art became purely about the artist and the buyer. To her, the modernist artist had moved too far from the traditional goal of the artist: to live for art’s sake, not for the end result. As Otto Rank, a Viennese psychoanalyst once wrote (in 1932) about the artist: ‘His calling is not a means of livelihood, but life itself…he does not practice his calling, but is it’. This book was written just before postmodernism exploded so was written during a time of doubt and crisis in the art world.

Reading this book has led me to question what the viewer gets out of purely non-representational, abstract forms of art (art from the pinnacle of the modernist movement). Art galleries, particularly the big few, are full of well-known abstract expressionist and other non-representational ‘ground-breaking’ works. We still flock to see them.

So, I asked a random person. The impression I got from that random person was that he (it was a he) values non-representational abstract art for the aesthetic properties of that artwork. He told me that he judges an abstract artwork based on whether he likes it or not. It doesn’t provoke an emotional response for him, he doesn’t seek a narrative in the artwork, he doesn’t consider the artist’s state of mind or motive, he simply judges the work based on whether he likes the image or not.

So, to him, then, modernism didn’t fail. It served a purpose: it created a bunch of artworks that are pleasing to his eye and that he enjoys looking at in an art gallery. Modernism enabled him to see beauty through a selection of shape, colour and composition. Of course, my survey of one person is not enough to make any great conclusions.

Recently, when I took my middle son to a Jackson Pollock exhibition, I asked him what he thought of the one of the pieces on display. He immediately constructed images in the paint splatters. He saw shapes, people and made stories. He didn’t appear to get an aesthetic reaction. At first I thought that was because of his age and naivety, so his childlike tendency to see stories in everything and imagine beyond the restrictions of vision. But then I realised that I also did the same thing. Aesthetically, I found the painting quite disturbing, but in terms of narrative potential, I loved it. (Neither of us considered the process of Jackson Pollock in creating these paintings, or his intention.)

A random Jackson Pollock painting - what do you see?

A random Jackson Pollock painting – what do you see?

So, what does non-representational abstract art do? I always assumed that the aim was to provoke an emotional reaction, such that Mark Rothko expected, as he said: ‘A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.’

This painting is an experience

This painting is an experience

But now I am thinking that, perhaps obviously, the answer is that it does different things to different people. To some it looks nice or not so nice. To others it moves. And to a few (perhaps me and children) it creates potential for adventure.

I disagree with Suzi Gablik. Modernism didn’t fail. It lead to the next stage: postmodernism. And postemoderism, which is now on the wain, has led to the next stage: post-postmodernism. I don’t think we can say that any development in the art world is a failure. It is just part of the process.


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