“All paintings are abstract. Some abstract paintings also have pictorial representation or narrative content, but in essence they are first and foremost abstract because we have only paint.”
– Robert Bissett
I think we do sometimes lose sight of all the ways in which art does not really reflect reality. Sometimes a work of art seems so realistic, you want to reach our and touch it. But in reality, it isn’t realistic – by it’s very nature it is at least one step removed, almost always several steps removed, from reality.
Being an artist requires us to make decisions about how our work will differ from the world around us. First, we choose what piece of reality we’re going to represent. We decide what to include, what to leave out, what colors, shapes and textures to use, etc. This “editing” process is the first and perhaps the most important step we take to define the individual piece we’re creating.
As a photographer I’ve always been amused by people who believe photography literally captures and recreates the world around us. As soon as you point the camera at something, you’ve made a choice as to what to include and exclude. There are all sorts of further ways in which “reality” is altered when taking a photograph – exposure and aperture settings, what kind of film you’re using (does anyone use film anymore?) each of which makes the scene look very different, what time of day you take the shot, etc. And when making a print of the photograph, there are artistic decisions about what paper to use, how large to print it, and many changes you can make to the image in the printing process that further affect the final piece of art. Think of black and white photography – is the world black and white? Yet, we routinely accept these photographs as representing reality.
We create our art, at least in painting and photography, in two dimensions only, unlike the 3 dimensional world around us. The pigments we use, no matter how good they are, cannot recreate every color that exists in the world. Our perceptual system can distinguish tonalities, hues and qualities of light that simply cannot be reproduced using any art form.
So by definition, all art is abstract. The content of the work may be representational or not, but the act of making art is, in essence, an act of abstraction. Maybe this is why it is so seductive a practice. We are recreating the world in a new way – can you imagine a more empowering act?