What is abstraction? What is representation?

The concept of abstraction in visual imaging is generally thought of as an oppositional term, i.e. that which is not figurative in its representational schema.  The Oxford English Dictionary, however, defines abstraction as follows, “The act or process of separating in thought, of considering a thing independently of its associations."  While some art historians remain invested in the notion that abstract art must be defined as the opposite of representational art, careful contemplation of the basis on which the OED definition rests allows visual culture theorists to engage abstraction in a way that does not construct it as simply opposing representation. Fundamentally, abstraction may be more usefully understood as a process that isolates the essence of something in a way that requires it to be removed it from its representational context.  This explanation of the relationship between representation and abstraction posits two claims to demonstrate that the two modes are, rather, co-constitutional, and mutually implicated in the process of creating visual images. 

  1. All art is abstract to some extent because no image can faithfully represent every possible detail contained in that which is to be represented; and
  2. An artist chooses which details to incorporate and which to leave out. 

For a concise demonstration of how this can be applied to analyzing a visual image, view the brief teaching module developed by Art History graduate students at the University of Maryland and available through the Visual Resource Center:  http://www.arthistory-archaeology.umd.edu/resources/teaching.html.  Select the link: All Art is Abstract

In the academic study of the history of western art, explanations for the development of abstract art forms of expression in the twentieth century usually rely on narratives that impute the ‘discovery’ of abstraction to white male artists trained and working in the western tradition.  Some of these narratives acknowledge the influence on the artists that came from contact with objects from non-western cultures. Unfortunately, however, these abstract non-western objects are described as ‘more primitive’ than western art forms and credit for ‘modernizing’ and ‘civilizing’ the use of abstraction rests with western artists.  This very selective and biased reading negates the degree of formal and conceptual sophistication of the multiple modalities of abstract forms originating in non-western cultural spaces and also erases the many modes of experimentation with abstraction already present in cultural spaces within western art tradition.  

Any exploration of abstraction as a formal element in art, must, therefore, place western ‘high art’ abstraction in dialogic conversation with the modes of abstraction practiced in other cultural spaces.  Questions of influence are thus observed to be mutual, ongoing, and synergistic across the varying experiences of cultural time and space.  The contextual significance of relationships between abstraction in art and abstraction in other media, such as poetry and music (jazz, for example) is also noted. 


Activity: The Gee's Bend Quilts , word file, pdf file

Activity:  Exending the discussion beyond the classroom, word file, pdf file

Additional online resources to examine confluences between ‘high art’ western abstraction and other co-existing traditions including Native American, Latin American and African American: 

      1. University of New Mexico Art Museum: http://unmartmuseum.unm.edu/programs.cfm
        Lesson plans, images and materials available on the following exhibitions:
        2. Jaune Quick-To-See Smith: Made In America
        3. Architecture: Defining Spaces/ Defining Time
      2. Albright-Knox Art Gallery:  http://www.albrightknox.org/exhibitions/index.html
        1. Petah Coyne: Above and Beneath the Skin
        2. Abstraction:  Formal Exchange – The Gallery and Latin America
        3. Art Museum of the Americas:  http://www.museum.oas.org/permanent/abstraction.html
          Latin American abstraction, 1950s - 1980s
        4. Black Arts Movement, Abstraction, and Beyond by Richard Powell:
      3. A contrasting example of a site that DOES NOT incorporate various cultural contributions in constructing the story of abstraction, but that privileges only the ‘high art’ engagement with abstraction can be found on the Metropolitan Museum of Art web site. Students could be asked to contrast and compare these different narratives and queried as to why contrasting narratives exist.  Individual or small group responses could then be discussed in a large group context with attention to the different responses imagined among the group.
        Geometric Abstractionhttp://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/geab/hd_geab.htm

Questions (Consult Bank of Questions for more relavant questions.)

    1. Internal Context – What you ‘see’ in the image/object without context (link to Frame and Gaze for additional resources on ‘seeing’.) 
    2. External Context – Additional context brought to your viewing experience by learning how others interpret and or use the image/object
    3. What assumptions did you bring to viewing this object?  Did learning about the context of the object change any of those assumptions?
    4. Do you consider this object to be a work of art?

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