Abstract art as a symphonic experience: This is the first article in a series of articles that will seek to plainly explain abstract and contemporary art in an effort make these art forms more broadly understood.
People can be turned off by abstract and contemporary art due to the feeling that they just don't get it. They feel duped or possibly left out from an inside joke. They don't see the talent or the use of techniques that indicate a work of art is good. What's more, there is often no narrative to follow and no discernible meaning. Understandably, they decide they don't like it and turn their attention elsewhere. What makes matters worse, is that the art world often tries to explain art through the use of complicated philosophies and technical art-speak. They try to make it exclusive and important by wrapping it in a shroud of esoteric mumbo jumbo.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Art is inherently understandable because beauty does not need to be understood. It is enough to simply experience it. When philosophers speak of beauty, they are not referring to something that is intangible or simply pretty, they are speaking of something that is itself true and profoundly good, and that is what art is. However, if a thing is truly beautiful then it is always so, no matter who is experiencing it. That means that if you are listening to a symphony by Beethoven and you don't like it, it is still beautiful. You just might not be ready or able to receive that beauty. It's the same with contemporary art. If the work of art is truly and profoundly beautiful, then it is up to the viewer to discover it. Yes, it takes a little work, but the rewards are well worth it. Therefore, my goal in writing this article is to explain, in plain English, a few ways that anyone can access contemporary art and see its beauty.
First, there are many ways to approach a work of art in order to understand its meaning, and no way is better or more correct than another. Artists don't expect viewers to have one set experience. They want you to bring your own spirit and imagination to the work.
A symphonic experience for the eyes
The first way that you might think of an abstract painting, is as a symphonic experience. Let's go back to that beautiful symphony by Beethoven. Say for example, you are listening to Beethoven's celebrated fifth symphony. All the world loves this symphony. Those first four notes soar into your brain, and you are taken on a listening journey that tugs at your emotions on every level. However, at no moment during this symphony does anyone bother to ask what it is about. No one feels duped because they don't understand it or because there is no specific story line. People just listen and experience the music. In this sense, symphonic music is purely abstract.
Now, think of a great abstract painting. As you stand before this painting, there is nothing to understand that you don't already know. There is nothing you are missing. Just stand in front of the image and let the shapes and colors dance before your eyes. It's a visual symphony that tugs on your emotional strings just as a Beethoven symphony does. The only real difference is that while a composer has to marry such musical elements as rhythm, melody, and harmony, the artist must marry the visual elements of form, line, shape, etc. So the next time you find yourself standing in front of a painting you don't understand, try just experiencing it as you would a symphony and let your eyes feast.
Above is a painting by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Kandinsky had a condition known as synesthesia. This meant that as he heard sounds, his brain would create colors that floated before his eyes. Think of it as an additional sense. Some people with synesthesia get a certain taste in their mouth when they hear sounds, and people with this condition don’t' consider it a handicap, but actually tend to feel a little bit sorry for the rest of us, who only have the usual senses.
Kandinsky used this condition, along with his great artistic skills, to create abstract paintings based off of the music. These paintings are freed from any outward representation of reality and are a true expression of how the music felt to him. At the top of this article is the painting, "Impression III-Concert (1911). This was based off of a concert he heard by the composer, Arnold Schoenberg (1974-1951).
As you look at this painting, remember that there is nothing you are missing or have to figure out. It is an image that you are meant to explore with your eyes, without prejudice or the desire for it to be anything other than what it is. Think of it as a concert for your eyes and simply enjoy.
Author: Bruce Black
Welcome to Life Reimagined! I am a professional artist and long time art teacher, over twenty-two years teaching and still going! I have painted all my life and love to inspire others to reach their creative potential. I hope this blog brings you inspiration!