Perspectives: Abstract art

Perspectives: Abstract art
Abstract Art: An artist’s voice
Art isn’t made to simply look complex; it’s made to convey a feeling. (Charlie Wang)

Splattered paint on canvases, overlapping monochromatic rectangles, a banana taped to a wall  — all displayed proudly in art museums to the consternation of the general public. Why are all of these worthless trinkets, barely even art, shown in prestigious museums?

For many, when just looking at these pieces, it’s easy to say that they are not “art.” But who defines art? In order to be featured in these museums, artworks need to make people feel emotion or convey a message. Although abstract art can create negative feelings, it still conveys the artists’ message, albeit in a way that is less popular to a general audience.

Going past a cursory glance, many abstract art pieces have deeper meaning that the cursory view of most museumgoers do not see. The “Black Square”, by Kazmir Malevich, painted in 1915, seems simple and unworthy of recognition as all the canvas contains is a singular black square, and when looking at it without context, it looks like the artist is technically unskilled at art. However, looking into Malevich’s past works, he is capable of fully fleshed out paintings, having created many detailed portraits and landscapes. The simplicity of the singular black square is a culmination of his artistic journey over 20 years in simplifying his art and moving away from depictions of real world subjects. The artistry in this piece is not the black square itself, but instead Malevich’s journey to it.

Art isn’t made to simply look complex; it’s made to convey a feeling. Many critics of abstract art attack its visual image rather than the sense it aims to impart onto the viewer. The calmness of colors, appreciation of the composition or even unease at the topic of the piece are also important traits in a work of art, not just the portrayal of a realistic subject matter.

Preconceptions of art like believing its purpose is to convey a concrete subject commonly detract from the experience of abstract pieces. Due to most art before the modern period and invention of the camera focusing on conveying the world realistically, many now see art as a portrayal of something tangible instead of a method of communication.

Music draws little structure from the real world either, yet people listen to it for the feelings and emotions that it imparts. Drawings and paintings can also be appreciated in the same manner, instead of being judged by how well it captures a scene. Great talent and form in the creation of an artwork can help accentuate the message it conveys, but technique should not be the sole criteria of good art.

Even if some don’t enjoy abstract art, there’s no reason it should be taken out of museums. Art is subjective, and although not everyone can personally relate to some pieces of abstract art, others do. Not all people appreciate Renaissance or baroque art either, yet paintings from those periods still belong in museums to display.

Part of an art museum’s purpose is to show the history of art as well as having beautiful pieces. Contemporary and modern art, periods dominated with the rising and thriving of abstract pieces, are significant portions of the history of art, as they mark an important change in artists’ perspectives about their work, switching from a realistic depiction of real-world objects to an expression of emotion and individual messages. 

Abstract art marks a change in human thinking and has a popular following. Although some abstract art is driven by purely monetary purposes, most pieces are created through an artist’s soul. Removing pieces with real intentions from museums would detract from the enjoyment of others and hide decades of work and intellectual change.

Art that can only be understood through titles
Abstract art does not belong in museums because it actively avoids clear communication, and therefore falls short of fulfilling its purpose. (Charlie Wang)

Inhaling the faintly earthy smell, I sauntered through the Dia Beacon museum with high expectations as I had just visited the Whitney Museum of American Art the day before and saw multiple rooms full of carefully crafted and expertly timed photographs and colorful paintings depicting different scenes of contemporary life. Continuing forwards, I turned the corner into the next exhibition and paused abruptly, surprised to find myself standing in front of a completely white wall — almost. Facing me a little below eye level were 11 canvases painted entirely white, each the size of a backpack, all completely identical in shape, shade and texture. Not one of the paintings stood out against their white backdrop, a stark contrast between the dynamic color pieces of artistic expression in the Whitney Museum of American Art. If this exhibit was trying to convey a message, it failed miserably in doing so. 

Art is any form of expression that exhibits human creativity, and it reaches its fullest potential when it is able to communicate ideas clearly. However, abstract art represents a departure from the school of realism which aims to depict reality as accurately as possible. Abstract art instead uses different shapes, forms and colors to convey its message in a less representational way. This leaves room for the viewer to create their own interpretation, but it also makes for art that is inscrutable. For this reason, abstract art does not belong in museums because it actively avoids clear communication, and therefore falls short of fulfilling its purpose.

Art should be able to speak for itself, yet most modern abstract art requires a title and even an entire description for it to be experienced and appreciated, which defeats the purpose of art. If a plaque is required for the viewer to access the meaning of the work of art, then the piece clearly cannot communicate its idea on its own. Art, distinct from writing, is its own form of expression, so therefore it would benefit the museum more if it were judged based on how well the art itself conveys its message. Nowadays, self-proclaimed artists merely tack on supposed meaningful messages that are not inherent to the piece itself.

 Abstract art in some cases is indistinguishable from everyday objects that have no artistic purpose. A famous example is Duchamp’s “Fountain” which simply displays a urinal, something that requires no contribution from the artist. Urinals don’t hold any special meaning or express any significant message whatsoever. Hence, if Duchamp’s piece revolves around simply displaying one, it undermines its claim to creativity or to expression. In fact, the Society Board of the Society of Independent Artists’ salon in New York rejected “Fountain,” believing that it was some practical joke. Additionally, it argues that artists can simply classify objects as art, with Duchamp claiming “An ordinary object [could be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” As well as failing to express any message without an explanation, Duchamp’s “Fountain” also falls short in the sense of human creativity as Duchamp did not change anything about the urinal, besides merely categorizing it as “art.”

Likewise, in some cases, abstract art seems like it justifies a lack of technical skill. More and more artists today draw a few squiggles or paint a canvas a singular color and call it “minimalistic” or “simplistic.” Artist Jens Haaning made $84,000 after installing blank canvases in a museum for a piece he calls “Take the Money and Run.” Even more, invisible sculptures can be seen in galleries across the world, like Salvatore Garau’s “lo sono,” which are “sculptures” literally made of “nothingness.” These minimalist works of art lack technical skill, but rather rely on artist statements to do the heavy lifting. In a video documenting the Milan piece, Garau argues that his piece “is a work that asks you to activate the power of the imagination… You don’t see it but it exists; it is made of air and spirit.”

Museums honor art as a unique form of communication. Since money from taxes and tickets go towards museums, museums would be doing society more justice by dedicating their exhibits to display complex and meaningful art that embodies a clear message to viewers. The fact that people have to pay, just as one pays to watch talented figure skating performances in person, sets this apart from other forms of art that are free online or accessible on social media. Abstract artists should just stick to selling their art online or at auctions to the select amount of people that are willing to pay great sums of money for it contains more benefit towards society compared to being funded by taxes or the bank accounts of museums-goers. Art, as a form of expression, would serve its mission better if it were able to communicate its own ideas. Therefore, since abstract art fails to accomplish this as it relies on titles and descriptions to convey any sort of message, abstract art does not belong in museums.

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