Abstract art as an emancipatory activity.

According to the definition published in Tate Modern’s website “Abstract Art” is often seen as carrying a moral dimension, in that it can be seen to stand for virtues such as order, purity, simplicity and spirituality.

As art historian and MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. wrote in the preface to the catalogue “Cubism and Abstract Art” (1936) the painter of abstractions looks upon abstract painting as independent and emancipated artwork, as an end in itself with its own peculiar set of values. We can also find an analogy with music in which the elements of rhythmic repetition, pitch, intensity, harmony are composed without reference to the natural sounds. Therefore through abstraction the artist does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead uses shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve a different understanding of his/her experience in the world.

The art movement that directly opened the door to abstraction in the 20th century was Cubism and his central figure Pablo Picasso made his first cubist paintings based on Cézanne’s idea that all depiction of nature can be reduced to three solids: cube, sphere and cone. Although this type of images ultimately depend upon subject matter it took many liberties altering for instance color and form in ways that are partially abstract. As we can see in Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s important “Cubism and Abstract Art chart”, which accompanied the show of the same name at the MoMA in 1936, the pathways and pictorial traditions that led visual artists to abstraction is a very intricate path where different traditions and styles are mixed until they reach a place where representation is no longer necessary.

Alfred H. Barr-diagram

It’s interesting to note how the Nobel winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel writes in his book “Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures” (2016) that photography was a disruptive innovation that threatened the realists painters who had developed extraordinary techniques to evoke three-dimensional landscape or portrait images on a two-dimensional canvas. So many modern artists adapted their styles to meet the challenge of technological disruption by adopting a radically reductionist approach. Abstract painters by distilling their subjective world into color, form, and light make the spectator use bottom-up sensory and top-down cognitive functions to understand their artworks.

But we can find abstraction in many early art and cultures, for example in the geometric abstraction of Islamic Art or in the painting of Ensō created by some buddhist monks in Japan. The Ensō, a interesting example, is a circle usually made in one spontaneous brush stroke that for Zen practitioners represents the absolute enlightenment. It also exemplifies the paradigm of the minimalist aesthetic that guided part of the Zen painting and shows the various dimensions of the Japanese wabi-sabi perspective: asymmetry, simplicity, weathered, natural, graceful, freedom, tranquility. In their book “Enso Zen Circles of Enlightenment” authors Audrey Yoshiko Seo and John Daido Loori write that Ensō circles are not designed to merely be aesthetic, rather, the purpose of this kind of art is to train the mind, which is a critical component of Zen Buddhism. 

Finally, both philosophers Adorno and Habermas firmly believe in the emancipatory potential of modern art. As intellectual historian Gili Kliger points for Adorno the utopian dimension of the work of art lies in its status as a negation of or alternative to the present social reality. For Habermas the potential lies in the work’s critical reception and in the way the viewers can together discuss the work and relate it back to their everyday experience.

The power of abstraction as an emancipatory activity is clear when we understand that the reciprocal relationship between art and technoscientific innovation propels us to imagine new wolds. As professor Alva Noë writes, the true work of art is philosophical, a way to understand how we organize ourselves and inevitably, by a feedback loop, it helps us humans reorganize ourselves.

*(Picture: painting by Picasso at MoMA, diagram by Alfred H. Barr Jr. & Ensō circle).

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