Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Abstract art

Scholars have long been uncertain as to how to classify art . The practice and theory of abstract art may well have it's beginnings in the symbolism if Neolithic art in Eastern Europe, Siberia and Central Asia. Art of a monumental character was familiar to the tribes who inhabited the coast of the White Sea and the eastern shores of Lake Onega. Findings of a large number of petroglyphs were etched into the rock surface. The petroglyphs are executed in various manners. Realistic and symbolic petroglyphs, and outline drawings but most are silhouettes emphasizing lines, colors, generalized or geometrical forms, especially with reference to their relationship to one another.
In the late thirteenth and the fourteenth century began a long overture towards the advent of naturalistic representation in European art. Medieval artists had for centuries relied mainly on prototypes as representations of the human figure, with an occasional searching glance at objects in the optical world. It wasn't until the fifteenth century where imitation of nature as an objective gives artists a direction. The proto-Renaissance artist of the sixteenth century proceeded tentatively, seemingly suspicious of an approach that involves fleeting appearances and empty of traditionally authoritative formula. Nonetheless, there is a careful stepping into the threshold of discovery infused in the art of that period of a hopeful spirit and often confident, if somewhat unsystematic.
Artists are not philosophers, however in the Renaissance they come very close to sharing the philosophical enterprise and in many ways the situation is akin to the art of today : so many possibilities and such diverse directions that, though rich conclusions are perhaps looked forward to, the way to them appears confused.
With the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the evolution of the Christian Middle Ages a new way of looking at the world emerged from the dissolution of the medieval style of thought. A new approach was needed to explain the nature and God thus creating the fundamental changes in art. William Ocklam, one of the most ingenious and subtle Scholastics who attacked the rationalism of Aquinas, appears to provide such an approach when on the precipice of a great insight, he emphasized the importance of the role of intuitive knowledge and the individual experience in the process of knowing.

Everything outside the soul is individual....{and} knowledge which is simple and peculiarly intuitive knowledge....Abstractive individual knowledge presupposes intuitive knowledge...our understanding knows sensible things intuitively.

Interestingly, many of the later thirteenth century and fourteenth century mystical and skeptical thinkers who emphasized personal intuition and experiences in seeking divine and natural knowledge were Franciscans in what might be called Franciscan radicalism stressing the primacy of personal experience, the individuals right to know by experiment, the futility of formed philosophy, and the beauty and value of things in the external world. It was amidst the rich and simulating social and intellectual environment established by the Franciscans that the painters and sculptors of the proto-Renaissance started a new epoch where the carved and painted images took shape from the optical world and applied the principles of the precocious thoughts of the English philosopher Roger Bacon of personal discovery through experience--for the artists case, the experience of seeing--artists began to project in painting and sculpture the shifting optical and the infinitely complex reticulum that humans experience as the world.
For the world the nineteenth century was an age of radical change unparalleled population explosion, revolution followed revolution, a pattern marked by counter-revolution and conservative reaction. Economic and social struggle vied industrial capitalism and the bourgeoisie against the greatly impoverished masses. The quick industrialization created abrupt changes in age-old living patterns creating an acute dislocation for many. The Industrial Revolution began the exodus from rural living to the city in search of jobs and sent thousands overseas and the disparity between the rich and poor widened unprecedentedly.
Enlightenment and a profound sense of history pervaded the century and many in the nineteenth century did not accept the doctrine of progress. The great debate of this era was about authority-- the questions of what should be believed, respected, defended, and conformed to. Revolutionary shake ups about authority calling for the greatest good for the greatest number was advocated and confusion arose over the means to the ends of these ideologies. Maxims and slogans for innumerable movements remain current today--the isms: liberalism, radicalism, socialism, communism, conservatism, nationalism....and there counterparts in the art world: Romaticism, Realism, Impressionism, and the rest.
The artists of the nineteenth century were facing formidable changes...churches and secular nobility were replaced as sources of income by the triumphant middle class, the national state, and national academies. Competition forced crowds of artists, whose number had more than doubled since the end of the previous century, to vie for public attention by flattering its tastes. They became small independent capitalists with their own stocks and stores, taking chances in the market, aiming to please.
Artists who were dissatisfied with public tastes began to protest what they viewed as the degeneration of art into a shallow entertainment. Here began the nonrepresentational art styles of the 20th century. Romantically idealistic of self expression, artists called for a new, highly individualist vision, one of sincerity and originality, free from the hypocrisies of conventional tastes. There artists tended to group or be grouped into parties or movements analogous to those in political life and recognized for their zealous opposition to the status quo. The art world was on the threshold of what would turn out to be modern art, although functionally different from that of the past even though it was constructed out of the tradition of the past to a greater or lesser degree.

A variety of factors contributed to this historical division. Nineteenth century artists were confronted by three innovations that fatefully affected their work: The camera, the mass-produced print and the printed reproduction . Rivaling the unique work made by hand these new products flooded the world with images and in a way the nineteenth century artist was technologically displaced forcing them as individual craftspeople, to analyze their function and to study closer the physical nature of their medium beginning the development of abstract art as thought of today. Towards the end of the century, artists found themselves using the elements of line, shape, and color to represent their private world, the realm of imagination and feeling. The functions of the artist and the artists medium were decisively transformed by the modern world, and the art of that world broke firmly away from the Tradition
Art became a representation of objects in terms of abstract geometrical form rather than of natural appearance for decorativeness or symbolism and also, by extension, the stereotyping of forms by tradition for the same reasons. Formalism emerged and corresponded to stylization but has since been distinguished from the 20th-century notion of abstract art, which today defines it as a free arrangement of nonrepresentational shapes.
From early times examples of formalism in both senses are to be found in Neolithic statuettes and wooden sculpture and masks from Africa and Oceania, in the decoration of primitive pottery and Chinese bronze and jade, and in the object-symbols that make up the pattern of Oriental carpets; religious art has produced the hieratic figures of Byzantine mosaics and Russian icons and the Buddhist statuary of the Far East, all recognizable at once from pose and habiliments.
In modern times formalism is exemplified in the paintings of the Cubist, Futurist, and Vorticist movements.
Abstract art did not flourish between World Wars I and II. Beset by totalitarian politics and by art movements placing renewed emphasis on imagery, such as Surrealism and socially critical Realism, it received little notice. But after World War II an energetic American school of abstract painting called Abstract Expressionism emerged and had wide influence along with Abstract Figuration and Abstract Symbolism. Since the 1950s abstract art has been an accepted and widely practiced approach within European and American painting and sculpture. Abstract art has puzzled and indeed confused many people, but for those who have accepted its non-referential language there is no doubt as to its value and achievements.


Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.


State Hermitage Museum

Picture source

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