You’ve heard it before. I know I have. Whenever the topic of abstract art comes up in conversation it’s almost guaranteed someone clever will say something along the lines of “I could do that,” or “My kid could do that.” It’s practically a cliche. Clever people who have prepared to make this argument might make a reference to Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, which is essentially a painting of the color black.
To start, I recognize that people don’t do this to harm anyone or anything specifically, it’s just conversation. On the other hand, I just don’t think it’s in good spirit to disparage an artist in this way. Aside from that, I feel like that point just doesn’t hold water.
While it may technically true that you could just paint a canvas black, it would not be Kazimir Malevich’s black. What he did was unique and original, if you did it it would be derivative. What he made and when makes a difference. This is what he said about Black Square, saying it evoked “the experience of pure non-objectivity in the white emptiness of a liberated nothing.” That is much more than just “a black square”, it is Black Square. The point is not that “anyone can do it” the point is that anyone can appreciate it. It makes you think. And what is brilliant is that everyone is going to have their own thoughts and feelings when looking at it and actually taking time to just ponder it rather than leap to criticism.
So what is Abstract Art? Essentially it is art that is not meant to be realistic, that is to say, there is the incorporation of different degrees of deliberate non-representativeness of reality such as in Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism, or surrealist elements as in Dada, or for example in the works of Salvador Dalí.
This history of Abstract Art is deeply representative of much of the world’s history for the last 200 years. Various movements of art coincided with changes in society. When artists could reliably find work and a livelihood from institutions or individuals other than the church, the independence and freedom to be creative rapidly blossomed. Romanticism, Impressionism, and Expressionism all began around the 19th century and contributed massively to the school of abstract art.
While by today’s standards the works of Monet and Renoir seem very old-fashioned and inoffensive, in its beginnings, Impressionist art such as theirs was incredibly radical and revolutionary. At that time in France essentially the only type of art that was acceptable was that of Realism, which is a style of art that is meant to depict the real world as accurately as possible. But in the 1860s a group of artists grew more and more dissatisfied with that approach and began to challenge that.
Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass, depicts a nude woman having a picnic in the park with two clothed men, and for that, it was emphatically rejected by the Paris Salon along with many other Impressionist works like that of Monet, Sisley, and Bazille. When Emperor Napoleon III saw the rejected works he organized an exhibition for this artwork called Salon of the Refused. Many of the viewers came only to mock and deride the work, but eventually, it began to grow on people. It started to make people think and learn to appreciate art for its beauty rather than its ability to accurately display the real world.
Anything that can change hearts and minds and tell a story about what is happening in your world for generations to come has value.
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