Abstract Art Isn't Scary
What is it about abstract art that sends a chill down the spine or makes you flush with rage? The sharp blocks of color, indecipherable splatters, and large expanses of blank space make some nervous, fill others with anxiety, and (at the other extreme) send a few into unexplainable bursts of anger.
To understand why some people hate abstract art, you have to understand why they like other styles. Let’s look at one opposite of abstraction - Americans are rather infamous for loving Impressionism. While those exhibitions sometimes feel like they play on a loop it’s not difficult to see why they’re so popular. Impressionist paintings are usually filled with bright colors (light pastels or rich jewel tones) and glimpses of happy people enjoying the pleasures of everyday life. At the core, they’re aesthetically pretty and easy on the eyes. You don’t have to mine the depths of your subconscious for an answer here, everything you need to know is on the surface.
Then there’s abstract art – the artist isn’t giving anything away. It asks you to bring your interpretation to the table. The fear of giving the “wrong answer” usually stops people short. Don't be nervous! If the point of abstract art is that there is no singular narrative then nothing you say can be "wrong." My biggest advice (and this is for viewing any style fo art) is to be curious! Ask yourself “why did they do that?” Take for example – Abstract Expressionism. The artists from this movement were moving away from representation subject matter after the horrors of World War II and the Depression. They wanted to focus on feeling, gesture, and color over creating a story for you to follow. Let’s go even further back – to Cézanne and Duchamp. Their experimentation with breaking forms down to the most basic abstract shape was an act of revolution, a move away from tradition. Though to be fair, what the Impressionist created was also revolutionary for their time and everyone hated it when the first started exhibiting. This is where knowing a little about the history of the time period (the cultural and political environment) can really change the story behind the artwork. Of course, you don’t need the story to appreciate what you’re looking at (and some artists don’t want you to know anything beyond the canvas), but it does add layers.
There’s another kind of response to abstract or contemporary art – “I could do that.” Or maybe even, “My child could do that.”
My first response to this is short and to the point, “Well, you didn’t.”
However, if you’re looking for an answer that’s more in-depth and gets to the root of why someone might be feeling this way, I’ve got one of those too. Maybe the person saying this is looking for an artwork that is not subtle about the technical skill that went into its creation. Think about Raphael's School of Athens (1509-1511) versus Cy Twombly's Second Voyage to Italy (Second Version) (1962). The Raphael is not shy in boasting about the training and skill that was required to create the finished product. You see the shading, composition, perspective, and are even able to identify the people in the painting – this is not Raphael's first commission. There seems to be an assumption that to be a great artist and to have work displayed in a museum, you have to produce something with so much technical skill that it humbles people into thinking "I could never do something like that." If it is not immediately obvious how much time, training, and gift went into the creation of an artwork people get frustrated.
Looking at the scribbles of a Twombly might make people angry upon first viewing, but I suggest that if something makes you angry or frustrated you take even longer to look at it. Take a moment to think past the anger (which, trust me, I know is difficult) and ask yourself what is making you feel this way. The more you look at a Twombly the more you see his control of line and the precision of color. This is not just a hurried drawing of a toddler; this is something that took time and planning. Many abstract and contemporary artists go against the grand traditions of academic painting. Instead, they bring thought to the form instead of focusing on the form itself. Going back to what I was saying above - if people are humbled by examples of technical skill, like the Raphael, then why do they get upset over abstract art? It's an interesting dichotomy to think about. The more "simple" or "easy" a work of art looks, or in other words the more accessible in skill level, the angrier people get. Instead of being relatable in a, "Oh! Maybe I could even do that!" kind of way, it's, "What!? What is this sh@! I could do that!" I don't have the answers, and I definitely don't have the time or funding to run a study to find out.
All of this to say - it's okay if you don't like abstract art. If you want realistic art, then seek it out and view it with pleasure! There's no rule saying you have to like everything on a museum's walls. However, I hope that you are able to appreciate abstract art a little more after reading this.