I never appreciated abstract art – until trying it.

abstract painting

I never understood why anyone could like most abstract art. To me, too much of it seemed merely decorative and boring, if not ridiculous, gimmicky, lazy, and hideous. One place where I worked had a typical giant abstract “sculpture” nearby that I actively loathed -- it looked like a ball of discarded scraps of sheet metal. It irked me, because it seemed like a scam. I thought of pieces like that as fake art, a convenient way to dispose of spare grant funding while pretending to be sophisticated.

What intensified my suspicion of it is the fact that the CIA funded abstract expressionist (among other) artists during the Cold War as a way to depoliticize culture and discredit socialism. They concealed the money’s origins by funneling it through foundations set up by large capitalists and corporations. (This is detailed in a book I highly recommend: “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters” by Frances Stonor Saunders).

There's a common reaction to abstract art: “What’s the big deal? I could have done that!” And of course that’s often true. In fact just about anyone can make art, if they want to and have access to materials. But we don’t believe in ourselves because we’re told that it’s restricted to “special” people with inborn “talent.” (Of course everyone has different strengths and interests, and not everyone wants to make art; but too many people are discouraged from it unjustly).

I think what bugs people so much is the pretentiousness of the commercial art world. Marketers fabricate the fake persona of an “artiste” to arbitrarily inflate the value of certain art, so they can maximize the profit they can leech off it. Market value is based on mystique, more than on characteristics more traditionally esteemed (emotional impact, beauty, skill, meaning, etc).

I continue to have a hard time appreciating most abstract (and purely decorative) art. It’s been my conviction for a long time that in our social context of intensifying crises – wars, exploitation, environmental destruction – that artists have a responsibility to contribute to the culture in ways that can help resolve these things. And I still believe that.

But lately I’m finding myself warming up to abstract art. Not in opposition to figurative or political art, but as something completely different. And not so much in a relationship of observer-to-object or product, but more as a participant in a process. Because I tried making some, and it was freeing and fun – like dancing alone in the living room, like singing along loudly with the car radio, like playing.

Here are a few things I’ve discovered through the activity of abstract painting:

* An appreciation of the fact that materials have their own characteristics and behaviors. We can’t completely control them, but learn about their range of possibilities as we interact with them.

* The freedom of letting go of preconceived results, and welcoming the fascinating and often beautiful surprises of random chance.

* A painting can seem alive. It has movement when the composition of shapes and colors are balanced to draw the eye around, without getting hung up on “dead” (unharmonious, unsuitable) areas.

* More aspects of a painting beyond subject: layers, textures, the effects of different tools, colors mixing on the brush and canvas.

* Fast abstract painting can loosen us up for any subsequent artistic endeavor.

* It can bring us to a peaceful and free state of mind that’s extremely satisfying and simply fun!!

* We don’t have to compare it to other forms of art or choose between them. Each has its own qualities, reason for existing, and social effects. And they can each belong to all of us – we don’t need gatekeepers to tell us what to like or what we can or can’t do.

In short, while contemplating abstract art still isn’t usually very exciting to me, I do see it differently than I used to. I see more than just a bunch of random colors and shapes; I perceive the gestures that made it, the activity in it. And as an activity, I’ve come to enjoy it – a lot.


Abstract painting with layers and textures: yellow, blue, red Abstract painting with textures and layers: purple, pink, red

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