Is Abstraction the Essence of Art?

The pursuit of abstraction is as old as humanity itself. From prehistoric cave drawings to ancient Greek sculptures of the Cyclades, abstraction is a timeless expression of our human need to break the world down to its essence.

And even today, the appeal of abstraction has a formative influence on the current art market. According to the Artsy Trends Report 2023, abstract painting, with all its facets, is of central importance for galleries worldwide.1

In the 20th century, Abstract Art emerged as an independent, influential and provocative movement within art history. It was significantly influenced by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Hilma af Klint and Kazimir Malevich.

But not just in painting, but also in sculpture, there was an increasing turn away from realistic representation. Sculptors like Constantin Brâncuși or Alberto Giacometti strove to capture the essence of their motifs through abstracted and reduced forms. They thus challenged the conventions of realism in sculpture and created their own abstract language.

The artworks of the time did not always meet with positive reactions, however; on the contrary, they were met with rejection. For some, abstract representation represented a threat to traditional art. In Germany in particular, abstract and expressionist works led to fierce controversy. The National Socialists defamed many works, including Kandinsky’s watercolor “Abstieg” (“Descent”, 1925, see image below) and Otto Freundlich’s sculpture “The New Man” (1912), as “degenerate art”.2

Simplicity is not an end in art, but we usually arrive at simplicity as we approach the true sense of things.

Constantin Brâncuși
Torse, 1925–1926, Bronze, 56,5 x 24,5 x 23 cm © Kunstmuseum Basel, Depositum der Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, 1967
Alberto Giacometti, Torse, 1925–1926, Bronze, 56,5 x 24,5 x 23 cm © Kunstmuseum Basel, Depositum der Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, 1967
Wassily Kandinsky, Abstieg, 1925, 48 x 32 cm, Museum Moritzburg Halle (Saale)
Wassily Kandinsky, Abstieg (“Descent”), 1925, 48 x 32 cm, Museum Moritzburg Halle (Saale)

After the Second World War, the development of Abstract Art continued, particularly in the USA. Artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko strove for direct, emotional and, above all, intellectual interaction with the viewer. As a counter-movement to Abstract Expressionism, Minimal Art gained importance in the 1960s as a further movement within Abstract Art. Even today, this style remains a unique testimony to artistic freedom, despite the wide variety of approaches.

So where does this deeply rooted human desire or need for abstraction come from? Could it perhaps even be the essence of our artistic expression?

Looking for answers

There are various approaches to answering this question. Abstraction offers the artist freedom beyond our perceived reality. By abstracting the physical world, the artist can express subjective experiences, feelings or complex ideas in a simplified way that would otherwise be difficult to depict. Abstraction thus becomes a tool for expressing and communicating inner states or spiritual concepts.

Culturally, the need for abstraction, especially in the early 20th century, has often been interpreted as a reaction to the complexity and unrest of the modern world. At a time when traditional values and structures were disintegrating, abstraction became a way out for many to find individual artistic expression and rebel against established norms. The German painter Paul Klee wrote in his diary in 1915: “The more horrifying the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract; while a world at peace produces realistic art.”3

Another interesting approach to answering my question could be studies on the perception of art. Petra G. Lengger and her team (2007), for example, found that although viewers preferred abstract and figurative paintings equally, the abstract works evoked more positive emotions. They were less “interesting”, less comprehensible and evoked fewer associations – and yet they were more emotionally appealing.4 This suggests that abstraction resonates with us on a deeper, more emotional, and above all subconscious level, regardless of our intellectual and cultural understanding. Incredibly interesting!

Abstract Sculpture, made with Midjourney by Aesence
Abstract Sculpture, made with Midjourney by Aesence
Barnett Newman, First Station, 1958, Magna on canvas, 197.8 x 153.7 cm © Collection of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff/National Gallery of Art
Barnett Newman, First Station, 1958, Magna on canvas, 197.8 x 153.7 cm © Collection of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff/National Gallery of Art

Abstraction as the essence of art?

No matter how diverse the reasons may be, abstraction is a universal and fundamental component of human expression. But does that make abstraction the essence of art? Well, I think I will probably have to leave that question unanswered. It is not only a style but also a reflection of human experiences and feelings. It is a fundamental, deep-rooted need of humanity.

Various research results indicate that Abstract Art is less easy to understand, but still evokes stronger emotional reactions than Figurative Art. It therefore speaks to us on a deeper, subconscious level that is independent of our cognitive perception or cultural education.

History has shown that abstraction in art is an enduring force that continues to manifest itself in new forms and styles. In the future, artists will surely continue to look for new ways to explore deeper emotional and philosophical questions through abstraction. So it will probably stand the test of time. Perhaps it is the essence of art after all? What do you think?

Further Reading

  1. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-art-industry-trends-2023
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degenerate_art
  3. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Paul_Klee
  4. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00085/full and https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006899307010578?via%3Dihub

Interesting Read


About Exploring Aesthetics:

Sarah loves asking questions and exploring the things she engages with on a daily basis. Exploring aesthetics is her column which discusses art, design, and aesthetics to explore, inspire, and question the status quo.

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on the subject, Sarah. I agree that abstraction is a fundamental tool for artists to express and communicate inner states. As an artist, I find that abstraction is often a more honest and pure form of expression, free from the limitations of the real world. However, whether I would call it the essence of art, I don’t know.

  2. Although I appreciate your elaborations in this essay, I still have to critically note that calling abstraction the “essence of art” is very one-sided. Art is a multifaceted field that spans different styles and forms of expression. Abstraction is just one of many ways of creating and interpreting art. It may be the “essence” of art for some, but certainly not for all.

    1. Hello Tobias! Thank you for your interesting thoughts on this topic! And yes, I completely agree with you – abstraction is certainly not the essence of art for everyone. What is it for you?

      1. For me, the essence of art is the ability to express emotions and thoughts that are otherwise difficult to put into words. Art allows us to explore and share our inner worlds and to communicate with each other. Whether this is through abstraction, realism, surrealism or any other form is ultimately less important than the message the artist wishes to convey.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Aesence is an independent art and design publication dedicated to minimalist aesthetics. Founded out of a deep appreciation and fascination, Aesence aims to promote awareness and appreciation of minimalism in art and design.