Abstract Art

6 June 2016

When the Western art cannon is examined, there is one common read thread that unites  nearly every monumental work from antiquity through Impressionism, figurist representation.  Under these guidelines, art must communicate within a set of guidelines that make whatever it depicts recognizable to the viewer.[1]

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Common themes like fruit, landscapes, and portraits are considered figuratively successful when the painting recreates a visual type that is identifiable to the viewer. The artist creates their work knowing its viewers already have a preconceived notion in their mind what a tree or portrait should look like. Thus, when they can rectify a painted type within their own set of contained reference points, the image successful transfers the sign from object, to artist’s mind, to canvas, to viewer’s mind. [2]

Consequently, visual abstraction is best understood as the human manipulation of recognizable icons into forms that challenge the identifiable attributes of the visual icon. Instead of a language of formed symbols and iconography, abstraction uses a visual language of color, line, or brushstroke, elements that make the skeleton of all painting, figurative or not.  These unite in creating a syntax that stands independent from the physical, representative world.  For this reason, it is often used when artists must visually represent something that itself is otherworldly, mysterious, or indefinite.

Examples of this can be found in cultures from across the world, even those whose artistic styles developed for centuries alienated from each other. Interestingly, a majority of cultures that utilize more abstracted style in presenting intangible concepts of spirituality and death are found in arts of the non-West.  Naturally, those who wish to depict objects of themes which are mysterious to the living world would resort to mysterious or atypical application of color and form.

Through these elements, the artist can attempt to evoke the understanding of otherworldly representation without having any type or container to refer to in the tangible realm.

Yet, It seems that cultures most removed from Europe and the Western perspective on representation and linear perspective seem to be most open to abstracted forms in their representations. The reasons behind this are debatable.

This does not necessarily mean that distance from Western perceptions of art fostered more abstracted creations. However, it could imply that these non-Western cultures more highly valued emotive representation where European artists typically valued precise representation. Funerary artifacts or other items from non-Western cultures associated with death and the spiritual world may appear abstract compared to Christian representations because they remain alien to the Western viewpoint.

Additionally, these other cultures typically believed in a theology that was defined with practices and creatures less physically accessible than Christianity. For example, in the Sipán sacrifice ceremony, as depicted on a funerary tomb unearthed in Peru, a Warrior Priest, Bird Priest, and Priestess are all identified figures.

These figures feature exotic headdresses, festive ornamentation, and in the case of the Bird Priest, a bird head on a human body.[3] These would appear exceedingly abstract to the modern, Western perspective, especially man-animals and figures festooned in such a manner. But, to the Sipán, they represented sincere guides for the departed in the afterlife. Thus, the reason many cultures appear to have resorted to abstract methods of representation in could also be because the audience is unequipped with the right containers that the artist’s intended viewer would possess.

[1] Moszynska, Anna. “Abstract art.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 24 Apr. 2009 <http://www.oxfordartonline.com.proxy.lib.fsu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T000238>.
[2] Arnheim, Rudolf. “What Abstraction Is…” Visual Thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969: pg 174-5.
[3] Hirst, K. Kris. “Figures B and C of the Sacrifice Ceremony.” About Archaeology – The Study of Human History. 24 Apr. 2009 <http://archaeology.about.com/od/mocheculture/ig/New-Elite-Moche-Burial/Figures-B-and-C-.htm>.

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