What is abstract-art? How do we define such a thing? A standard definition of abstract-art would be to call it non-representational, or non-figurative. Quotes like “The term non-representational is frequently used as a synonym for abstract” (Tate Glossary) are commonplace and many assume they are adequate when talking about the experience of art. This leads us to a second question – what is representational or figurative-art?
Representational-art, or figurative-art, is most often used as a label for art which depicts the world as we see it – which attempts, in some fashion or another, to “re-present” the world to us as it was visually experienced by the artist. Take paintings as an example. Portrait paintings, still-life paintings, landscape paintings – all these would most often be labeled as representational, or figurative-art. In each of them the sense of sight is re-presented sensibly to the viewer so that they may re-see (or “re-ceive”) what the artist saw. But can we say that abstract art is non-representational? Or non-figurative? In this blog I will unpack the terms abstract and (non) representational. In a later blog I will deal more fully with the terms abstract and (non) figurative.
Does abstract-art “re-present” something to the viewer? When talking of figurative-art I stated that it “re-presents” the world as we see it, as we experience it with the senses. But are all figurative paintings of the world as it was experienced by the artist? Are they all intended to be “documents” of something that actually existed? No. Some re-present “fictions.” Take a figurative painting of a dragon – does this painting re-present the world as it has been experienced by the senses? No, because dragons do not really exist. A dragon is experienced in the mind of the artist – and then it is “re-presented” in pictorial form for the eyes. A dragon is an “idea” first and has little relationship to the world of actual visual experience. Take a surrealist painting by Salvador Dali. Is this a re-presentation of something actually seen? Is it a document of the world as it was experienced with the eyes? No. It is a re-presentation of something in the artists mind, rendered visually. It has a relationship to visual experience, certainly, but in terms of representation it involves both the eyes and the mind.
Now, isn’t it possible to think of abstract-art as representing something? Can we not say that abstract-art “re-presents” images-of-thought? And is it not true that an abstract painting renders these images-of-thought as images-of-sight? Perhaps the abstract artist sees the painting they wish to paint in their head – they have an image of it – and this image is re-presented to the audience, much like a figurative-painting. Doesn’t the abstract-painting connect eye and mind to the same degree as figurative-painting? Is there not still an aspect of representation involved, something “present” in the mind of the artist which is then “re-presented” to the viewer by means of visual-data? It would seem to me that defining abstract-art as non-representational is a limiting statement. For the moment I would prefer to say that representation is an aspect of both abstract and figurative-art. Now we may say that there are abstract examples of representational-art, and there are figurative examples of representational-art, and all art is “representational” in some respect.
Here I have shifted from a commonsense understanding of representation to a philosophical understanding of representation. The Tate Gallery, for instance, defines representational-art as “art that represents some aspect of reality, in a more or less straightforward way” (Tate Glossary). However, this definition is purely nominal. Representation can also be defined as anything which uses signs to stand in for, or to suggest something, other than what is there. Hence, in literature, there are signs (words) which stand in for, or represent, something to us. This something does not have to be the “world” as a visual entity. A philosophical text uses words to re-present “ideas” to us (images-of-thought) rather than visual-data (images-of-sight). Similarly I would argue that while a figurative painting re-presents “images-of-sight,” an abstract painting may re-present “images-of-thought” through the medium of paint.
In classical philosophical discourse abstraction refers to “ideas” rather than “objects.” This would mean that there can are two modes of representation. Firstly, there is the representation of ideas, and secondly there is the representation of objects. One would involve a process of abstraction (representing ideas) and the other a process of figuration (representing objects or figures).
How might an abstract painting represent images-of-thought? Take Hamish Clayton’s Untitled (pictured below). This painting is comprised of two grey panels and a circle which overlaps, and provides a point of union between them. This, for me, re-presents George Hegel’s philosophical idea of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. For Hegel any thing (a thesis) has an antithesis in thought. When I say cup, I can just as equally say “not cup.” When I say left, I can just as easily say “not left.” Classical Western philosophy, particularly the thought of Aristotle, argues that a thesis and an antithesis (the thing and its opposite) cannot be unified and that the difference between them is absolute. Hegel argues that there is always a synthesis which enables thought to develop, to expand. For instance – if we are looking at a painting of a cup and someone says “This is not a cup,” what are we to make of their statement? We can either say “You are wrong – it is a cup” (asserting an Aristotlean position) or we may look for a synthesis which makes both statements true. We might, for instance, realise that the painting is not actually a cup, even though it may represent a cup through signs. It is a cup (object represented) and it is not a cup (abstraction). In Hamish’s painting the two halves represent the thesis and antithesis – while the circle in the middle represents the synthesis of the two halves. In this sense his painting re-presents an “image-of-thought” through visual data (signs).
Is this to say that figurative-art does not re-present images-of-thought? Not at all. Religious paintings frequently represent images-of-thought, as does symbolist, surrealist-art and even realist-art. Take a realist watercolour painting of a beach. This may have the image-of-thought “The beach was beautiful and I decided to paint it” attached to it, which is then re-presented to the viewer through the care the artist took in rendering the scene visually.
Similarly, I do not mean to imply that abstract-art does not represent images-of-sight through figuration. Take, for example, Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (pictured below). This painting is “abstract” and yet was probably “inspired by the sights of New York, the dazzling night spectacle of its high buildings with their countless points of light, and in particular the moving illumined signs at Times Square.” (Ralph Lichtensteiger). Similarly Mondrian’s Trafalgar Square is a visual re-presentation of Trafalgar Square. The fact that abstraction has taken place does not negate its representational element.
This idea can be extended to so-called “realism” in painting. No matter how realistically an artist attempts to render a scene there is always abstraction involved. In philosophical terms abstraction refers to the generalisation of objects into ideas. For instance – there are many individual trees in the world, but we are also able to refer to the abstract entity of “tree” which refers to no particular tree, but to an idea of trees in general. All realist paintings firstly involve an abstraction of the flow of time, for instance, in which the continuity of events is frozen and a single image is produced. In the real world light is always moving and changing – morning light is very different from afternoon light, for example. In a realist painting this movement of light is abstracted, or generalised, to produce a single frame of the world in which the “idea” of morning-light (or afternoon-light) is represented.
Here we have shifted from using the terms abstraction and represention as “adjectives” (describing a painting) to using the terms as “verbs” (processes of painting in terms of activity). Rather than stating that some paintings are “abstract” and some are “representational” and that those that are abstract cannot be representational (and vice-versa) we are now saying that all paintings are in a process of abstraction and representation. Using the terms this way we have more to do as viewers. No longer can we simply say “That is abstract” and move on. We must ask “How is it doing abstraction?” and “How is it doing representation?” Similarly, it will no longer be a case of labeling an art-work as representational but asking “How is it doing representation?” and “How is it doing abstraction?” No longer are the two terms in a dialectic. Instead they form a dialogical relationship, in conversation with one another rather than in conflict.