Art, abstract

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M001-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

7. Interpreting abstract art

Problems of interpreting abstract art are considerably more intractable than those posed by any previous type of art. The extraordinary variety of modes and styles coming so quickly upon the scene, each with its own set of demands on viewers, is one problem; artists’ aspiration to radical difference is another; and the obscurity or idiosyncrasy of artists’ motivations and criteria of success is a third. An outstanding case of the last is the goal of ‘purity’, a notion that means little without further specification, which is rarely forthcoming. Surrealist claims regarding deep psychology or ontology are equally suspect, not just in themselves but as applied to images. In default of convincing explanations speculation by commentators is rife. For instance Mondrian has been interpreted (Fer 1997) not in terms of his success (or failure) in expressing any particular form of ‘essentialism’ but rather as inadvertently manifesting a sexualized form of narcissicism. Even if we accept one of these interpretations, how much can we glean from it as to the particular virtues and limitations of particular works by the artist? This example is all too typical. The lesson is that nothing short of aesthetically sensitive immersion in the oeuvre and the context of origin combined with rigorous critical reflection can bring about real understanding. A corollary counsels scepticism toward large and dramatic hypotheses, not to mention wariness when confronted by the usual presumption of artistic success of the works themselves. A realistic survey of actual controversies permits one to doubt that even the best present-day critical practice is fully able to satisfy the criterion. But one thing is certain: theorizing is rampant as never before. Whether Duchamp’s ghost takes any satisfaction in the ongoing swirl of intellectual discourse about the new art is unknown.

Citing this article:
Brown, John H.. Interpreting abstract art. Art, abstract, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M001-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

Related Articles