“Abstract form,” Sheldon Cheney has written, “whether narrowed to a summary of the plastic elements, or expressive of the synthesis of instrumental and emotional values, is understood as the basic excellence and test.”
Abstract artists especially have sought analogies for the elements and the principles of geometrical order, in the realm of aesthetic order. The reason that so much “geometrical art” is the subject of popular skepticism is that it is constructed to formula and remains a matter of arrangements and patterns, without the element of fresh creation and aesthetic significance entering in.
Discussion of abstract, non-representational art has generally led to controversy rather than to any real clarification of the subject. Fanatical opponents and supporters reach a deadlock, because it is as useless to deny the legitimacy of abstract art as to try and impose its principles as absolute dogma. No artistic formula can be justified or condemned in itself; it must be judged by reference to the quality of the works that exemplify it.
After half a century of vicissitudes, and despite its present widespread acceptance, abstract art still presents difficulties of an historical and aesthetic nature which no article on the subject, no matter how brief and objective, can ignore. Architecture and music are naturally admitted to be abstract arts, not required to ‘represent’ something, and subject to their own laws, whereas poetry, painting and sculpture are considered arts of representation.
Ought this traditional distinction to be maintained or, aesthetics being universal, can all arts claim the same inherent autonomy as music and architecture? It does seem that abstract art was born from the very desire to emulate music and architecture, with a freedom and discipline of its own. Kandinsky, with his suggestions of music, and Mondrian, with his ideal of architecture, demonstrate the limitations and, at the same time, the achievement of abstract art.
In the general process of abstraction that characterizes modern art, is there a line of demarcation between the domains of representational and non-representational art? And if so, where should it be drawn? Can one speak of relative and absolute abstraction, and where does absolute abstraction begin? Finally, is abstract art in its various manifestations a truly original creation of the twentieth century, the outcome of historical conditions, or is it a cyclic phase whose equivalent is to be found in the arts of the past?
The term ‘abstract’ itself is equivocal and invites discussion. For one could easily claim that all art is abstract, just as one might follow Picasso in declaring that there is no abstract art. Attempts to substitute other terms for it have failed. One interpreter of the movement, Michel Seuphor, has said: ‘I call abstract art all art that does not recall or evoke reality, regardless of whether that reality be the point from which the artist started, or not’.
Abstract art falls into two historically defined periods: an initial period ( 1910-1916) when abstraction was the result of an antinaturalist process, and a second period that began in 1917 with the De Stijl movement and is still going on, in which abstraction for abstraction’s sake is the absolute principle from which the artist starts. It might perhaps be clearer, as is becoming the accepted practice to do, to call the first ‘abstract art’ and the second ‘non-representational art’.