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What Is Abstract Art? And IS It Art?

If you tend to be a literal person, you may be wondering, what is abstract art? You might look at a picture and try desperately to see what it is.

Many people who believe they don’t grasp art will look at abstract art and feel frustrated. So they naturally deem it ‘not art.’

This is understandable. We live in a world where folks want to put everything into neat little boxes. The reality is, though, that making sense of abstract art is much easier than you might think.

Okay. So What Is Abstract Art?

There is no definitive answer to this question. It’s not so black and white (no pun intended). For people who want an absolute answer, this is problematic.

They may look at a piece in a museum or a gallery and scoff. “My six-year-old could do a better job,” they say. And if they have children who are interested in pursuing art as a career, this lack of understanding about what art is leads them to discourage this path.

In a nutshell, viewing abstract art requires an open mind. It’s not going to tell you what it’s about. That’s really up to the viewer to be inquisitive and curious. Abstract art welcomes the viewer to explore and then assign meaning.

Even if the meaning is not what the artist intended. And that’s okay.

Abstract Artists Have Amazing Skills

What a lot of people don’t realize is that the most skilled abstract artists create their work to be non-representational. The viewer may see a canvas with a few lines and think the artist must lack the skills to make a ‘real’ picture.

In reality, established abstract artists have gotten to that position by first demonstrating an ability to draw, paint, sculpt, etc. The artist is well-versed in form, color, line, texture, pattern, composition, and process. These are the formal qualities of art and abstract art explores these qualities. The work’s meaning is drawn from how these qualities are used to create a visual, emotional, visceral, cerebral, etc experience.

Most abstract artists could create a perfectly rendered tree or sailboat (or whatever) but they choose instead to create a green and unencumbered visual experience.

And yeah. This can make the viewer feel uneasy because they don’t know what it’s ‘about.’ Since it doesn’t look like anything, then it must not be about anything. The notion of assigning their own meaning to the work can feel overwhelming. Even threatening.

Abstract Art Is About Being Open

Pablo Picasso was troubled by people trying to ‘understand’ art. He likened it to trying to understand the song of a bird.

This makes perfect sense. Art, and abstract art, in particular, can’t be sufficiently described with words. How it influences people is completely subjective. And it speaks to the nonverbal parts of our being. Art – whether a literal Madonna and Child or a highly representational abstract piece – is an experience. It’s meant to take you somewhere.

Abstract art requires an inventiveness from the viewer. It invites the viewer to discover for him/herself what the work means to them. This requires more from the viewer than a still life, portrait, or more representational form of art might.

So how do you look at abstract art if you’re a very literal person who thinks you have to understand it?

See It Through Your Own Eyes

First off, it’s best to view abstract art in person to get the full effect. And you have to view it with a different part of you.

From there, you have to shift gears. You have to let go of the notion that there’s something to understand and instead accept it fully for what it is. Be open and let your eyes wander over the piece the way you might let music wash over you.

Examine the materials, forms, and colors, and how they interact. Be cognizant of the emotions, sensations, and memories that surface. A highly detailed and vibrant painting will likely affect you differently than a less involved piece.

Most importantly, take your time. The work will “speak” to you if you allow it.

You Don’t Have to Like Abstract Art

You may never find a satisfactory answer to the question, what is abstract art? That’s okay. You don’t need to.

If you have a creative child who thrives on art, however, you may want to consider giving her/him/them the chance to learn how to express themselves.

Providing them with an arts-integrated education that teaches academics through art is the perfect place to begin. Contact us today to take a tour of our school.   


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