Your home for intelligent conversation on the web
The Arts Room General What does abstraction mean now?
THINQon is a platform for a more intelligent web. It aims to replace the ruling paradigm of the web – that of sharing and gathering information – with a sharing and achieving of understanding. Instead of the Q&A model it offers an experience. A platform for discovery of ideas, people, and yourself.     Continue >
What does abstraction mean now?
So, I'm stuck and was wondering if anyone had thoughts on this. If the 80s' take on abstraction was that everything had become a representation (ie, even an abstract painting was not about a "pure" abstraction, it looked like a representation of an abstract painting), and if almost all images have undergone some form of abstraction (using abstraction as a verb here, meaning images photoshopped, cropped, culled, copied, etc), then where does this leave us now? In other words, what's our relationship to abstraction now and what's shifted? What does abstraction, the noun, even mean? Thanks for any thoughts you might have!
Hi Lulu,

I don't have much to say but wanted to make sure you read this post from the music room, posted only several hours before yours, which talks about much the same questions. Perhaps your post is a reaction to it already, but I wanted to mention it just in case you didn't see it.

I don't know too much about current theories on art, but I think the more interesting theories on art today try to distance themselves from the old distinction of whether it is a representation or not, abstract or not, but rather they try to describe what art does as a performance. They ask: what is the action which is performed by art? The play representation or not, like this is not a pipe, is simply a part in this performance.

I'm not being very clear, and I don't feel I can be as am not sure myself, but I think the way I would say it is that current theory, or at least what I would consider interesting theory on art, tries to think "outside" the dichotomy of representation-abstract, to a new kind of existence. They see the old dichotomy as missing the point, and even obstructing you from seeing what is really going on.

I assume other people here can explain it much better than me.

Nice name by the way.
Interesting question, Lulu. I'll point out the gratuitous similarity between abstraction/obstruction. :-)

Chris, if you think the old dichotomy is being superseded, I guess one of the questions then is, what is at stake in saying that we should move beyond it?

What's in the back of my mind is an interesting remark (can't remember the source now, but A C Klein cites it in the beginning of her book on Yeshe Tsogyal) about the sudden popularity of Buddhism in the west. The remark was essentially: for a long time there were a series of established dichotomies male/female white/nonwhite etc etc and only one of each pair really counted as "selves" or "people." Now: why is it that the moment in history when women, minorities etc really begin to make a serious claim on selfhood, is coincidentally the moment when a large piece of the culture decides that the self is an outmoded category and should be abandoned?

So what's "in play" in moving beyond, or even abandoning, abstraction? Is there an analogous kind of question?

(Of course Klein makes an interesting argument for Buddhism in the west nonetheless; as one might expect by the fact that she's willing to entertain such issues. But the movement of the question is important.)

This also seems like a good place to mention Anna's wonderful bit in this post about how symbols have become generic and "there is nothing left to be a container of memories".
Very interesting discussion about a crucial topic. To put it bluntly, I would say, reversing Lulu's pointing to the dissolution of the dichotomy of abstract vs representation in favor of representation, that EVERY art is abstract art, rather than representational art, and would agree with Chris that this turns it into something like existence. Let me explain.  First of all, it is important that we change the way we hear the term abstract from being a noun, to a verb, an activity. Art is always something that abstracts, meaning, taking away from,a certain "fullness" of a context or a situation, thus introducing a certain dimension of emptiness, or an activity of emptying a situation from its fullness. Say there is a person -  a farmer? - standing in a field surrounded by a farm etc, a painter can chose, for example, to concentrate just on the hands of this farmer, painting only them, without giving us the entire situation. What happened here? the painter ABSTRACTED  the hands from the fullness of the situation, and opened a certain empty space around them (the wall, the outside of the painting, the white canvas itself, etc). this empty space is what is now ACTIVATED, replacing the fullness of the content, and opening the existence of the hands to the possible as such, that which can come out of emptiness, precisely because the meaning of the hands and their gestures is no longer to be interpreted in relation to the context, but opens up the possibiliity of new meanings, new interpretations, new use of the hands. As such, to abstract means to detach from the meaningful context, replacing meaning with an empty "space" or time, where something can nopw happen unpredictably. This is THE basic gesture of art, from early paintings down to Duchamp, who, in his famous toilette, simply abstracted the toilet from its contextual surrounding, and exposed it to the emptiness of a museum where it can change its signification to anything what soever, thus demonstrating that art is not about creating new objects, but about giving emptiness, or activating emptiness.

As such, this introduction of emptiness is an activation of existence, if we understand existence, or life, as that openness to transformation where things can mean in new ways, and whereby we learn to engage things in new ways. the emptiness is what gives us the freedom to exist, or to open up new meanings, etc. In this sense, every art is abstract rather than representative, not about something preexisting it, but about creating emptiness out of which the new comes. In this sense as well another old dichotomy, between the figurative (which is not the same as representative) and the abstract is itself canceled as well, in that figuration, the creation of a figure in art, is itself an activity of abstraction, whereby a human being, for example, say the farmer, is abstracted from an overall situation and is isolated on  picture, and immediately the farmer turns from a person to a figure, that which exists in the domain of art, figure meaning precisely the activation of emptiness happening through the transformation from a person to a decontextualizing painting. (In relation to this question of the figure, see the discussion of the figures in the paintings of Francis Bacon as described by Gilles Deleuze in his book, The Logic of Sensation)
Books Discussed
Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation
by Gilles Deleuze

Join the Community
Full Name:
Your Email:
New Password:
I Am:
By registering at, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.
Discussion info
Latest Post: March 28, 2011 at 10:04 PM
Number of posts: 16
Spans 765 days

No results found.