Art, abstract

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

1. The history of the category

The nearest precedent of the category and its label is the use, from about 1870, of the term ‘abstract music’ for music without lyrics or programme. Until late in the nineteenth century, use of the vocabulary of abstraction in relation to the visual arts was rare and predominantly pejorative. For example, Gustave Courbet in 1861 claimed that abstraction, by which he meant undue emphasis on any partial aspect of art, puts the true end of art beyond reach. Purity was a more common metaphor in early writings about the new art, as it had been in relation to music. The positive implications of ‘abstraction’ were first exploited in a major way by Willhelm Worringer (1908) and Wassily Kandinsky (1911), though the two had quite different art in mind. They argued persuasively that the ‘urge to abstraction’ is a ‘primal artistic impulse’ (Worringer’s phrases). The term gained additional currency from the proclamation by Apollinaire and other champions of the new trends in France of a new art of ‘pure painting’ which drew more on ‘conceived reality’ than on the data of everyday vision (and not coincidentally evaded rivalry with photography). The category and label remained problematic for decades. Some artists (Braque and Mirò, for example) objected to any of their works being called abstract although the present consensus favours taking many of them that way.

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

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