Art, abstract

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 25, 2024, from

Article Summary

The use of the term ‘abstract’ as a category of visual art dates from the second decade of the twentieth century, when painters and sculptors had turned away from verisimilitude and launched such modes of abstraction as Cubism, Orphism, Futurism, Rayonism and Suprematism. Two subcategories may be distinguished: first, varieties of figurative representation that strongly schematize, and second, completely nonfigurative or nonobjective modes of design (in the widest sense of that term). Both stand opposed to classic representationalism (realism, naturalism, illusionism, mimeticism) understood as the commitment to a relatively full depiction of the subject matter and construed broadly enough to cover the traditional ‘high art’ canon through to Post-Impressionism. Analytic and Synthetic Cubism are model cases of the first subcategory while Mondrian’s neoplasticism and Pollock’s classic drip works are paradigms of the second. Though the effect was revolutionary, the positive motivations for this degree of abstraction in visual art were not wholly new. What was new was the elevation of previously subordinate aims to the front rank and the pursuit of certain principal aims in isolation from the full pictorial package. Thus abstract art variously celebrates structural and colour properties of objects, scenes and patterns; effects of motion, light and atmosphere; aspects of perceptual process, whether normal or expressively loaded; and forms expressing cosmic conceptions, visionary states or utopian ambitions. With a few exceptions (for example, the Futurists) the founders of abstract art were far from lucid or forthcoming about the significance of their work, and viewers have found successive waves of abstraction initially baffling and even offensive. But abstract art now forms a secure part of the ‘high art’ canon, though generally its appeal is less well understood than that of the classic modes of representation. Criticisms of abstract art have also become more lucid.

The chief philosophical issues affecting abstract art concern the definition of the term and the delineation of subordinate types; the relation between abstraction and other modes of avant-garde art that superficially resemble it; the magnitude of the artistic values so far achieved by the various forms; and finally the theoretical limits of significance attainable by abstraction as compared with the limits encountered in figurative art.

    Citing this article:
    Brown, John H.. Art, abstract, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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