Nonrepresentational Art, Represent!!

Despite all appearances to the contrary, I haven’t actually abandoned this blog; Paint and Pleasure has just decided to take a brief, bloggy repose for the past… several… months.  I will say that my lack of updates is not at all indicative of a lapse in my interest in painting or in my actual productivity.  On the contrary, these past few months have been the most artistically fruitful I’ve had in at least a year and a half.  Photographic evidence shall be forthcoming (seriously this time).

This post, however, isn’t about my recent work, but about the value of “nonrepresentational art”–a term that I’m using rather loosely generally includes art that does not depict anything in particular.  As most of you who use Facebook have probably noticed, the site has recently rolled out a feature called “Questions,” with which any user can throw their quandaries into the aether to be subjected to the collective  mockery insight of the internets.

A couple days ago I submitted an answer for the following question, which I figured I would share here since it’s somewhat topical.  Notes that I’ve added for this posting are in brackets.

Can anyone explain abstract art?  What makes for a good piece of abstract art?  How do you get meaning out of something so formless?

People have been offering really excellent answers to this question!  [I *think* they can be accessed by clicking here, but you may need to have a Facebook account.] With the important caveat that “abstract art” != “nonrepresentational art”, I’ll preface this by saying that my response is specifically about nonrepresentational art.

In my experience of going to art exhibits with people who claim they don’t “get” nonrepresentational art, there seems to be a common, subconscious assumption that the function of art is to represent things.  Rather than considering that a piece of art may have some other intended (or unintended) function, it seems like most of these people use whatever cues they can find to make a piece of art accord with that assumption. “That red squiggle looks like it could be a cat!” And so forth. The questions that follow are about why the artist would depict these discovered objects so abstractly. Is it a lack of talent for achieving realism? Is the squiggle red because the artist was feeling angry that day (perhaps at her cat)? In the end, it usually comes back to general mystification about the value of a piece of art that does a poor job of showing the viewer anything.

I usually try to explore possible other functions of a given piece of art. With something like DuChamp’s urinal (not the best example, perhaps, as it is representational…), the purpose may be to make the viewer call into question how they determine whether an object should be experienced aesthetically or used as a tool (I’m thinking specifically of Heidegger’s notion of things being “ready to hand” here). What would it mean for our lives if we could learn to see the beauty of a Michelangelo in everything we interact with? Perhaps if we can learn to identify that beauty in the object associated with the basest of bodily functions, we can learn to see that beauty in all things.

With something like a Jackson Pollock painting, the purpose may be to induce some feeling in the viewer.  In trying to make sense of the piece, the focus should perhaps not be on the artist’s frame of mind but on that of the person experiencing the piece.

These two approaches don’t even touch on the historical and cultural lenses through which one can view a piece of art.  A previous responder to this question also talked about DuChamp’s urinal with a more historical line of questioning:

You have Marcel DuChamp asking what art is by submitting a urinal to an exhibition. But he signed it! Of course, it was rejected. Copies are now sitting in museums around the world. Are they fake copies of something that was mass-produced in the first place? What is art? What is art in an age of the machine line?1

Along these lines, I feel the need to mention that even in traditional representational art, the function is not always perfectly straightforward to a contemporary museum-goer.  Although they may be aesthetically pleasing, religious icons, including what are essentially portraits of saints,  have the intended purpose of being objects of religious contemplation.  Even though most people don’t have the same “I don’t get it” response to them, they do serve a function that is not immediately understood by all audiences.

This not by any means a comprehensive list of ways one can approach a piece of art, but I do think the common assumption that underlies this general befuddlement is a misplaced belief about the function of art. Freeing oneself of that assumption certainly doesn’t mean that all nonrepresentational art becomes meaningful or likable, but it can lead to some of it being more comprehensible.

1 I have just no idea how to cite this source, or if I even should for privacy reasons. Thoughts?

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