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Just what is “abstract” art, exactly?

Anyone who knows little about abstract art would be forgiven for thinking that it is just a bunch of shapes and objects. Abstract artists appear to be driven by the desire to attach labels and categories to their work.  Further exploration, though, reveals that the search for meaning within abstract art is a conundrum highlighting both freedom of opinion and interpretation.


Abstract art is viewed as revolving around shapes, colours and patterns that often reflect thoughts, dreams and the artist’s “state of consciousness”. Often appearing simplified or reduced the works are appreciated suddenly, on first glance, and usually have little connection to reality, figuratively or otherwise.





The artworks are open to individual interpretation. A key example is the “black box” by Kazimir Malevich. This is, literally, a black square. Whilst many other pieces are more detailed and colourful, this one encapsulates the whimsical nature of abstract art, in contrast to the more “literal” meanings evident in classical styles. The “black box” serves as a useful symbol of abstract art because it deconstructs the methodology down to its most fundamental premise. The picture is what it is: a shape. The question that permeates our minds is, “what do – or should – I make of it?”

It is not an ideal to have a group of people say that one picture means the same to all of them. In reality, this could never be possible. What one person perceives it to be, it will be. While it is presumed that, in classical art, you and the artist will interpret the piece in a similar if not the same fashion, the essence of abstract art is more subjective. You will probably interpret it differently from the artist, and that is ok.




You would expect that, coordinating with abstract art’s categorical flair, such pieces would have a specific title if a set interpretation was meant to be extracted. But if there is no room for difference, then the beauty of the art is extinguished. You cannot put a label on the meaning of a piece of string. Similarly, if the subjective outlook of the artist is not counteracted by a myriad of personal responses from others then the art becomes a bit tarnished.

So, what is abstract art in the end? Abstract art may not be as proficient, precise or powerful as other art forms but it is an insight into the similarities and differences that exist between the thought patterns of oneself and the artist, and those of all around us.






Feature photo: pexels

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About Judith Brown

I did an MA in English literature at Kings College London where I wrote a dissertation on representations of characters with learning difficulties. I am very imaginative and write on a range of topics. I like to read, listen to music and draw.

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