What does modern abstract art actually say? Most art is clearly “about” something, even if it’s only a person in a field. Abstract art, though, with its arrangements of lines, geometries, shapes and colours, doesn’t seem to refer to anything. Or does it?
Let’s return to that person in that field. When we see a representational piece like this, we automatically make certain assumptions about the overall “feel” of the thing – which, to a greater or lesser degree (depending on the skill of the artist), are directed by clues in the image. Is it sunny? Is it cloudy? Does the person in the field have a particular expression on his or her face? Unlike modern abstract art, which barely contains a recognisable face or sky, the representation of the person in the field can tell us something about the person, something about the field, which excites particular emotions in ways, calculated to say something about human experience. So, for example: if the person in the field is on his or her knees, weeping, and the sky is brooding, one might say with some confidence that the image was trying to say something about the emotions of sadness, loss and so on. On the other hand – if the person in the field is skipping and laughing and the sky is sunny, one might equally reasonably say that the picture is “about” happiness.
Modern abstract art tends to go straight for the emotion of its “subject” without bothering to refract it through such cumbersome lenses. Realistically delivered images of people and their feelings are not the province of abstract art, which specifically rejects such definite articles for fear that they will dilute the emotion it is trying to convey. Abstract art, rather than finding a recognisable vehicle, a person or face, with which to portray sadness, goes for the jugular direct and simply tries to represent the emotion itself.
The effect of modern abstract art is very similar to the effect of music, in that it tries to speak to the gut without the refraction of recognisable objects. Even music, though, cannot deliver information “about” emotions as viscerally as modern art, because it is hemmed in by the tones and timbres of its instruments, not to mention the traditional associations we all make with certain combinations of sounds. Drums and guitars equal rock music, which has its own set of particular connotations; strings and pianos together become classical, harpsichords are baroque and so on. Our feelings about the feelings portrayed in all these kinds of music are tainted by our concepts of genre. Modern abstract art cannot be heard with the ears, which means it doesn’t fall into even that trap. Unlike any other form of art, the abstract stuff is “heard” with the heart and the eyes alone. And that means it can speak in words of universal understanding.
Because abstract art is so universal, it’s excellent fodder for home decoration. An art work that is universal can be interpreted in many ways by many people. That personal response, which again is like the response people tend to have to music, means the same piece of art can be hung on the walls of different people, for different reasons but with the same amount of success. Making modern abstract art as versatile a decorative choice as one could hope to find.