Abstract art and Existentialism

“Painting is a duality and abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing. It always remains on one level. It is only really interesting in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes.”
Francis Bacon

This quote from Francis Bacon reflects the tension between representational and non-representational art, both between artists and amongst audiences.

Bacon also said most abstract art was purely decoration.

Fundamentally, this comes down to a question of meaning and intention. Is the artist interested in telling a story, giving a sense of meaning to his/her image as well as a sense of composition and design, or is the artist looking at the painting as an object in its own right. That object being constructed of colour or shape or composition.

This is where Bacon has a point. Even abstract art needs to convey something if it is to avoid being just decorative.

One way to avoid this is to think about art from an existentialist perspective. Sartre talks about “contingency” which is the seeming randomness of things just existing in space. Man is desperate for meaning and order in this chaos, but the universe seems indifferent. Art, he believed provided contingency and necessity. It reflects back the objects around us (contingency), and makes an attempt to provide meaning from the artist’s perspective, whether in narrative form or through colour and shape (necessity).

Great abstract art does this.

It asks us to look at colour, shape, juxtaposition, texture in order to evoke a new perspective on the world around us. It questions our way of looking and, from a phenomenological point of view, asks us to experience the painting as a thing in itself and thereby become more deeply aware of our own existence.

Bacon was right. Abstract art is only really interesting in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes. But isn’t that true of the whole world?

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