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Abstraction

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term used in an art context in several ways: in general for processes of imagemaking in which only some of the visual elements usually ascribed to ‘the natural world’ are extracted (i.e. ‘to abstract’), and also for the description of certain works that fall only partially, if at all, into what is commonly understood to be representational. Differing ideas and manifestations of abstraction appeared in artists’ works in the successive modern movements of the 20th century. As the notion of abstraction in the second sense is always dependent on what the parameters of representation are thought to be, the two terms can be contiguous in definition, raising interesting points for the general theory of reference. For instance, an abstract work is often defined as one that does not represent anything, but not every work that does not represent anything is necessarily abstract. A painting that has a fictitious subject, for example a painting of Don Quixote or Camelot, does not represent anything (for there is no such person or place) but is not therefore abstract. A Zeus-picture or a Paradise-picture is no more abstract than a Napoleon-picture or a Paris-picture. An abstract work neither represents anything nor is representational.

This runs close to paradox. Does it amount to saying that an abstract picture pictures nothing and indeed is not a picture? It is perhaps better to speak of works rather than pictures. Still, to say that a work is abstract if it is non-representational does not hold in general. Most architectural and musical works are non-representational, yet are not thereby classed as abstract. Something is missing in the equation of ‘abstract’ with ‘non-representational’.

What is missing in such qualifications is that ‘abstract’ as applied to works of art is not a merely passive negative characterization, but has a further privative force. A non-representational painting is abstract in that it lacks a certain function or feature that is usual for and expected of paintings in general, while representationality (or more generally, denotationality) is not usual in or expected of architectural or musical works, and its absence in such a work does not constitute a lack or deprivation, or the classification of the work as abstract. Likewise, while it seems feasible to call a fish without fins ‘finless’, and a dog that doesn’t bark ‘barkless’, it would seem odd to call fish ‘barkless’ or dogs ‘finless’, or birds and horses either ‘finless’ or ‘barkless’. In spirited discussion among artists and critics, abstraction, that is, absence of representation, is sometimes presented in a more positive light—not as a lack or deprivation but as a purification. Not only does representation, incessantly before us in practical and commercial contexts on postcards, billboards and screens, come to be disparaged as having little or no aesthetic import, but furthermore, the argument runs, representation relates a work to something outside it, whereas an abstract work keeps entirely to itself with no distraction or detraction from its own functions and features.

It still remains, however, that abstraction, whether deprivation or purification, is a matter of what a work does not do or what features it does not have. To say that a work is abstract is to say only that it does not represent and is not even representational, so ‘Abstract’ is often combined with another term that indicates a primary function or feature of a work, as for example in ‘Abstract Expressionist’. Other combinations may be contemplated, such as ‘abstract allusionist’. ‘Abstract representational’ would, of course, be self-cancelling, and, strictly, so would ‘abstract portrait’ and ‘abstract landscape’. These latter terms, however, can be regarded as indicating that representation, though not altogether absent from the work, is subordinated to other symbolic functions such as exemplification, expression or allusion.

Since an abstract work is one without representation, or more generally denotation, the question naturally arises what an abstract verbal or linguistic work may be, a text that says nothing, a story that does not tell a story, a poem that does not speak of anything. Like a picture that does not picture, these works are deprived of a normal denotative function and refer directly by showing rather than saying, as by exemplifying patterns or expressing feelings. A curious anomaly arises here. Through the ambiguity in the use of ‘abstract’, extreme cases of this kind, such as a page of miscellaneous and irregularly distributed words, are sometimes called not ‘abstract’ but ‘concrete’! For example, in Concrete poetry, ‘concrete’ is used as opposed not to ‘abstract’ as ‘non-representational’ but to ‘abstract’ as ‘repeatable’ or ‘universal’. For a normal denotative text, whatever is spelt the same way in the same language, regardless of differences in fount, hand, size, colour etc, is another instance of the same work. On the other hand, a Concrete poem, an alphabet painting by Jasper Johns or an example of Chinese calligraphy is unrepeatable—the particular concrete object is the functioning symbol. Other objects, even if spelt the same way (where that term is applicable), are not instances of the same work but are different works.

Nelson Goodman
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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