Abstract Art

Magic Cowboy - Illustration by David J. Lisle - copyright 210 David J. Lisle

Abstract Art - December 19, 2015


Thinking about art and it's evolution from the earliest of times one can imagine abstractly a clear line of development that can also be seen in children as they grow and attempt to define the world around them. To establish a baseline for the following I am going to define what art is for the purpose of this piece of writing.

Art is any piece of visual representation, textual representation, religious concept, or political concept of any idea, concept, or real thing and would include any area of human activity, positive or negative, where any idea is made concrete. In this case war and human conflict are included.

This writing will not delve deeply into all of the above definition, only visual representation as this definition starts with visual representation and all of the subsequent topics are derivative.

If we start with our ancestors we can still see much of what they produced visually. Grave Goods and Cave Paintings are exemplary in this analysis. For example; grave goods include decoration intended to show human status in a human hierarchical society, which is an abstraction of power and influence. Other grave goods often contain either used materials of war or representational materials of war and often the tools used on a daily basis by the individual being buried. Burial in this manner also implies an expectation of further life after death and the grave goods are for the use of the individual in that further life; life after death is an abstraction of real life. If we examine the grave goods purpose when the individual was living we find abstraction of human teeth and claws (fingernails). And it makes little difference if they are stone and bone or early metals. We will confine ourselves to Stone, Bones and Skin.

Moving on to cave paintings we find that the majority of imagery concerns animals, human figures and some weaponry. We conclude correctly or incorrectly that images are rituals intended to improve the hunt and provide a good supply of animal foods. Like the grave goods they imply a continuation of life through human activity and like the grave goods are an abstraction of real life events.

In both cases the imagery is not photographic or 'super-realistic.' The imagery has been associated with drawings made by a child, but in fact the drawings are much more sophisticated than that. A child's drawing is an exploration of both inner and outer spaces and generally speaking not sophisticated. Whereas similar things can be said about both grave goods and cave paintings except they are exceptionally sophisticated. They are also exceptionally abstract.

As we examine linear patterns in historical art we think we see an improvement in representation. This, in my opinion, is a mistake. Humans did not get better at actual representation, they just got different abstract representations which modern day humans 'choose' to evaluate in terms of how well drawn or representative they are in terms of real life. In other words using a false standard to compare visual representations. That standard is the 'photographic' or so-called 'photo-realism' which are held up as acme representations and by which all 'realistic' visual representations are judged.

Some art era's are highly closely representational and figurative in such a way that anybody could 'read' the work as a picture of humans. The activities of the humans thus represented are not so easily understood. Nevertheless these images are still strict abstractions of reality as are photographs and all forms of figurative representational art.

The cutting tool found among grave goods is the imitation of a tooth and the tooth is the ancestor of all modern cutting tools, including tools that are highly abstracted such as laser cutting tools and chemical cutting tools like gas operated cutting tools. This includes all military weapons that cut including bullets, arrows, and bayonets. The spear in the cave paintings has the same ancestor, however it is represented by an abstraction thus: ↖ and variations. All of these things while being real world goods are abstractions, that is to say they are 'drawn out' of some idea. The idea of a tooth; how do I get this tooth out of my mouth and use it to cut up something I really do not want to put in my mouth? I find/make a tooth out of something else in the real world. To name the thing I point to my tooth and say the word for tooth and then I point to my abstracted tooth. If I abstract my tooth it means I take out my tooth. However this is not reasonable or even feasible, but I can make an abstraction of my tooth.

You may ask, "what is the difference then in children's drawing?" The answer is quite straightforward in that children have yet to make those synaptic connections that allow them to actually create an abstraction. Children are factually trying to draw or colour reality and their attempts at evolving hand to eye coordination are still developing, So children's art is not an abstraction in the same way that a more mature artist would make an abstract drawing. It is a mistake to draw parallels of adult abstract art to children's drawing and equally a mistake to assume that copying children's work will make one an abstract artist. As I write this I realize that several quite prominent artists, Picasso among them, referred to “becoming like a child.” Picasso is reputed to have stated “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality.” This is not what children are doing, children are trying to make reality as best they can according to how they perceive it.

My point is exactly that, there must always be something, be it idea, concept, or real world object from which one abstracts (takes away) and represents it in an otherwise different way. Such is life, just when we think we have it figured out we discover that what we are doing is not at all what it seems. The figurative artist organizes their brushes, paints and canvas and prepares to paint an image that will look like a real person, and a good figurative artist will make that image be easily identifiable with that person. The image is not the person, it is an abstraction of the person made with abstraction tools that are abstractions of fingers and spittle.

It follows then that abstract art is first of all an intellectual exercise that evolves an image from something and presents only extracted parts of that something and not the something itself. This enables us to paint, draw, and sculpt ideas that have no real world presence because they exist only as idea. Equally true is that it enables us to paint real world presence items as ideas instead of their real world actuality.