If you fail to see the point of abstract art, Mercedes Smith is here to tell you what you are missing.
As a devoted fan of fine art, and a professional writer on the subject, I regularly run up against people with a practiced disdain for Abstract Art. Their reasoning is always the same: if the artist isn’t skilled enough to paint something exactly the way it looks, they’re pulling our leg. This, I think, stems from the terrible way most of us were taught art at school, where A grades were reserved for the kids who could draw flowerpots with photo-real perfection, and Constable was lauded as the greatest of all English painters. Every time I find myself in a conversation like this, I relish the chance to explain my passion for the thrill that is abstract art, and if you, dear reader, are at all sceptical on the subject, I’d really like to tell you what you are missing.
It’s more fun than figurative
There was a time when, if you wanted a faithful portrait of your family, or to capture the solemn moment of your coronation, an artist and his canvas were all you had. Thanks to royal portrait painter Hans Holbein, we can be certain Henry VIII was a chubby redhead, and thanks to equine artist George Stubbs, we know that in the 18th century, horses looked exactly the same as they do today. Until recently, artists were tradesmen, hired to make ‘figurative’ (or lifelike) paintings of people and places that were precious to their wealthy patron. This arrangement worked perfectly for centuries, and then wham – in 1839 someone invented the ‘photograph’, known at that time as the ‘Daguerreotype’. The camera, you’d think, might have killed the painting, but no, that’s not what happened. Beaten entirely in the ‘figurative’ stakes, painting saw its chance to become something so much more important than pictures of ‘things’. In short, it threw off the shackles of ‘realistic representation’ and ran naked, and whooping with delight, into the dazzling ocean of painterly possibility. This is the moment when art went ‘Modern’ and became, frankly, so much more fun!
Don’t panic that there’s no ‘picture’
There is no greater cliché in fine art than the person who stands before an abstract canvas asking “but what is it?” Don’t for goodness sake let that be you. It isn’t anything, and once you get your worried head around that idea, you’ll be fine. When artists freed themselves from ideas of the literal ‘picture’, they set out on a new path with no rules. At first, they were tentative: the first officially ‘Modern’ painting (Edouard Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe, painted in 1863) was highly figurative, and only broke the rules of mathematical perspective and public decency (thanks to some delightfully inappropriate nudity). Thereafter, artists began to break the rules of light and colour with enthusiasm, then began to paint their emotional rather than visual response to things, then ventured into decorative layouts, then messed with visual angles, then dropped any visual reference at all and went full on Abstract with the emotive flinging of coloured paint, until in the 1970s, 100 years after that first Modern work, they dropped colour entirely and went with pure shape. Quite a rollercoaster century! And all of it, a fascinating tale of artists trying new ways to communicate.
It’s all perfectly innocent
One thing is certain. All these experiments in art weren’t part of some great plan to trick buyers into paying huge sums of money for blank blue canvases. They were enquiries into creative ways to express new things and new ideas, in a century which saw more social and technological change than any before it. In that sense, 20th century Abstract paintings are historical documents, evidence of man’s creative adventures in understanding himself and the rapidly changing world around him. They are artefacts as humanly touching and socially revealing as Elizabeth I’s riding saddle, Oscar Wilde’s notebooks, or Grace Kelly’s wedding dress, and that is why they command such huge sums of money. To judge them on the basis that they aren’t a picture of something is, well, ungenerous, and missing the point entirely. Anti-abstractionists generally seem to have deep concerns about being taken in by some elaborate ‘emperors clothes’ conspiracy, but the truth is that Abstract Art is the most innocent of art forms. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is: it is a splash on a canvas, a square metre of brilliant colour, a simple white cube in a peaceful gallery space.
Don’t take it too seriously
It seems counterintuitive, I know, for someone like me to tell you to take art less seriously, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The idea that Abstract Art should only be enjoyed on a deeply intellectual level is absolute nonsense and excludes almost everyone from enjoying it. I’ve studied abstract art in significant depth and could bore the pants off you on the subject (right?), but when I enter a gallery, I deliberately DON’T read up on the works I’m going to see. Why not? Because in the first instance I don’t care about that intellectual stuff. I want a raw experience of the work. My first thought is, does it thrill me? Do I hate it? Is it cool? Is it disturbing? Generally, I hope that it’s disturbing: that’s my favourite kind of art. What I am trying to say is that it’s fine to enjoy art on a purely instinctive level, and I encourage you to try it. Paintings are like flavours: it’s ok to lick a painting, say you love it, say you hate it, and move on. (Don’t literally lick it of course! You’ll set off some sort of alarm.)
Why deny yourself new pleasures?
Fine art is one of life’s great cultural pleasures, precisely on par with food and music. I know you eat food and I bet you like music, but I wonder, do you apply pointless restrictions to your enjoyment of them, as some people do to the appreciation of art? If you only eat classic cuisine, prepared according to centuries old recipes, that’s fine – but you are missing out on some smashing taste sensations, like sushi and soy sauce, or hot dogs with American mustard. If you only listen to classical music, you are denying yourself the chance to head-bang to The Clash, spend a lazy Sunday with Ella Fitzgerald, or think socially responsible thoughts whilst lip synching to a Stormzy track. Why deny yourself? Why not indulge yourself in all of it and see what floats your boat? Let me assure you that I love figurative painting, and have cried, actually cried, before the exquisite figurative perfection of John White Alexander’s ‘Repose’, but I have also cried before Yves Klein’s ‘Monochrome Blue’, which is a blank blue canvas. I don’t care if a work is figurative or abstract, as long as it is wonderful to my eyes.
It’s child’s play really
The best way to understand Abstract Art is through the toddler that was once you. I know that sounds like pop-psychology nonsense, but the fact is, there was a time when a bright red crayon seemed like the most beautiful object on earth, and a cube was the most mesmerizingly unusual object your little hands had ever held. Do you remember? But then your parents told you to stop messing about and comb your hair and use a fork properly and get a responsible job as a banker. Human play, and the simple joy of looking at bright colours, scribbling on a wall or hanging upside down from a tree branch suddenly became embarrassingly uncool behaviours, and that is such a shame. Imagine a place where, in your adulthood, you are allowed to stand and stare at a wall of dazzling scarlet and pink for as long as you like; imagine a room, filled with curious objects that make no sense to your visual cortex at all, and so wake up a fun bit of your brain you haven’t used for decades. Well, we call that place an art gallery, and you can go there whenever you like.
Enjoy it your own way
So how do you begin to engage with abstract art? The short answer is, however you like. Personally, I have a thing for colour. My favourite type of work, known as Colour Field painting, offers me a thrilling sensory game that I never get bored of. These canvases are typically huge, wide enough to swallow your entire field of vision when you stand before them, and you are supposed to just soak up the colour and see what it does to your soul. It’s possible you’ve seen the work of Colour Field painters like Mark Rothko in books, but that won’t do it: you need to get down to a gallery in your lunch break and come face to face with floor to ceiling expanses of passionate red, or furious red, brooding black, or bitter, broken hearted black, or “we used to have a tasteless bathroom suite in that colour when I was a kid” blue. Let it make you feel passionate, furious, brooding, bitter, broken hearted or strangely nostalgic for the 1970s, and then just take that feeling back to your office and let your co-workers wonder what’s perked you up this afternoon. It’s as simple as that.
See wonderful Abstract works at studios and galleries across the whole of Cornwall whenever you like for absolutely no charge whatsoever. Go on. Give it a go.