Art, abstract

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 14, 2024, from

6. The limits of abstract art

The category of abstract art is defined in part by opposition to what is here called classic representationalism. But there is reason to think it should not embrace all nonrepresentational modes. A case in point is art which is ‘concrete’ in the sense of presenting material objects as such, including, for instance, Marcel Duchamp’s unassisted ready-mades. Related examples occur here and there in the multifarious category of conceptual art: Joseph Kosuth’s Titled [Art as Idea as Idea], [water], 1966, which consists of an enlarged photocopy of a dictionary definition of ‘water’. These works undeniably abstract from representation in that they disavow all fictive appearances, even purely ‘optical’ ones. But their obtrusive and calculated ordinariness seems to close off all connection to the accepted paradigms of abstract art.

This breach results in significant part from the fact that the ordinariness of the works, taken in context, rebuffs aesthetic contemplation or freely imaginative engagement. Instead of offering a feast for the visual system, the work purports to deliver a message concerning art, the art world or society at large, and one that typically excoriates commodity fetishism, elitism and reverence for art. The mode of signification, on which the work’s standing as art depends, resembles that of a rebus or emblem, whose decipherment is most efficaciously accomplished by limiting one’s attention to the properties that convey the meaning – convey it, that is, given a detailed context which may include statements or even lectures by the artist. The work cooperates by offering scant aesthetic distraction. Much the same syndrome is found in Robert Morris’ quasi-minimalist sculpture. For example, the erect and fallen shafts comprising Columns (1961/73) forswear almost all of the modernist sources of sculptural appeal: refined finish, defiance of gravity, balance, precise placement, and so forth.

Perhaps from this analysis a criterion may be devised for distinguishing between minimalist or conceptual works that count as abstract art and those that are best placed elsewhere. Qualifying works would be those inviting fairly comprehensive and sustained aesthetic contemplation. A work that aims mainly at blocking or deflecting such engagement in favour of other ends would fall into one or another adjacent category. Naturally, delicate distinctions are required to apply the criterion. For example, Christo’s wrappings may straddle the boundary, since they purport to offer variable but generally quite limited contemplation-worthy fare.

Another boundary question arises over pre-modern works that radically schematize: Cycladic figures, Sepik masks, and countless other ‘primitive’ images. Accepting such works into the category might seem justified inasmuch as they exemplify the ‘urge to abstraction’. On the other hand, the works were certainly not inspired by a conscious rejection of classic representationalism. Further, nothing resembling the play with space fundamental to most twentieth-century abstraction can be plausibly ascribed to them. Thus including them would risk diluting the common ground on which the category was initially based. This issue is rarely discussed in the literature, but obviously deserves attention.

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

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