Art, abstract

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

1. The history of the category

The nearest precedent of the category and label is the use, from about 1870, of the term ‘abstract’ 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. However by 1888 ‘abstraction’ is a term of praise in the letters of Gauguin and other Symbolist figures and a number of near-abstractions were painted (most signally, The Talisman by Paul Sérusier, 1888). These artists associated abstraction with purity (Cheetham 1991), a term with a long Platonic provenance and which was also frequently applied to music. ‘Abstraction’ was first made the subject of a major theory by Willhelm Worringer (1908) and Wassily Kandinsky (1912), though the two had quite different art in mind. They, along with Kasimir Malevich, agreed 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 an art of ‘pure painting’ that draws more on ‘conceived reality’ than on the data of everyday vision. Still the category and label remained problematic for at least another decade. Some artists (Braque and Mirò, for example) objected to any of their works being called abstract although the present consensus favours taking them that way. By the 1930s the term was solidly entrenched even if its meaning was both cloudy and contested.

The driving impulses behind abstraction were various, reflecting the changed field of live possibilities for ambitious artists at the turn of the century. The ubiquity of photography had a large effect, soon reinforced by cinema. So did the steady increase of availability in museum collections and photographic reproductions of the works of all significant artistic traditions; once enshrined a mode of art was no longer a viable option for ambitious artists. Yet another factor is implied in Apollinaire’s reference to ‘conceived reality’, namely the sense that art had to be made in some way more intellectual, a sentiment echoed in Marcel Duchamp’s aversion to being thought ‘as stupid as a painter’ (‘bête comme un peintre’) as also by the phenomenon of manifestos and treatises. This suggests that artists felt challenged by the swift rise of modern science and technology and their effect on everyday life. A recurring theme in artists’ statements is the need for an art that reflects modern life and domesticates its harsher aspects. Some key figures (Mondrian, Kandinsky, Malevich) went further, aspiring to a new form of art that would play a momentous role in raising human culture to a new plane. A good case can be made that Neoplatonic ‘essentialism’, loosely enough understood to include sources as different as Schopenhauer and Hegel, was a pervasive inspiration of different modes of abstraction (Cheetham 1991), regardless of how imperfectly those philosophic theories were understood. All this and doubtless much more flowed together to generate a turbulent sprouting of novel artistic modes and styles, some creatures of a moment and others of long duration. Critics and collectors shared in the fervour for the new sufficiently to lend the new modes support, though museums were less welcoming and the general public decidedly slow to fall into line. This spectacle of art at the leading edge, particularly forms of abstraction, ceaselessly ramifying has become an enduring phenomenon. Unsympathetic observers take this to show that the impetus behind abstraction was, and still is, a search for novelty without real depth of motivation, a sentiment encouraged by the flamboyant provocations of some practitioners. A friendlier attitude will acknowledge that ambitious contemporary artists of all sorts operate under an imperative to be strongly creative but will also point to the other side of the coin, which is the exuberant seizing of opportunities wherever they present themselves. A mediator can point to abundant research into the motivation of the artists since 1900 showing that modes that seem completely opposed are often connected in ways that bring a surprising degree of coherence into individual oeuvres and large sectors of abstraction.

Citing this article:
Brown, John H.. The history of the category. Art, abstract, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M001-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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