Further Inquiries into “What is Abstract”
Source:Artintern.net Author:Song Weiguang Date: 2013-11-08 Size:
On a macro level, art itself should not be separated as abstract and representation, as all arts are expressionistic and exist concretely. As to the expression of art, the only difference lies in the manner: abstract or representation. Given that there is such a difference, it is necessary to go through the matter of abstraction.

  [Author’s Note: This article is an outcome of my further study on “what is abstract,” a topic I first raised in an article published in the 2011 supplement of the Sculpture magazine. Herein, I will consult the characteristics of abstract thinking in three different forms of art, thereby following up on “what is abstract,” a matter that doesn’t matter any more.]

  On a macro level, art itself should not be separated as abstract and representation, as all arts are expressionistic and exist concretely. As to the expression of art, the only difference lies in the manner: abstract or representation. Given that there is such a difference, it is necessary to go through the matter of abstraction.

  In visual art, we often confuse abstraction with deformation, and abstraction with destruction of object. There is another saying about abstract art: no need to learn abstract, but just improve your technique of making concrete; once brought up to a certain level, the technique, with only a small change, allows you to convert into abstract. In view of such sort of equivocal understanding, I will present in this article my ideas on the concept of “abstract.”

  Abstract is sharply not representation. Its synonym is “make up” and its antonym is “representation.” Abstract form and abstract thinking are ubiquitous, and, as well, have different focus in different fields. Philosophy and science, for example, both have the characteristic of abstracting the essential component of beings. For it is the artistic abstract that this article is about, so the discussion refers to three different forms of art: music, poetry and visual art.

  I. Abstract in Music

  The two Chinese characters of music, yīnyuè, are a compound, respectively, of shēngyīn (lit.“sound”) and yuèyùn (lit.“melody and rhythm”). If without the yīn, yuè is impossible, as the latter is nothing more than yuèyīn (lit.“musical sound”) organized with the elements of rhythm, pitch, harmony, dynamics, tempo, timbre and so on. Object omits sound, and when associated with our reception, thinking, action and perception, sound evokes emotions, which is derived from our “vital interest” to be “happy or angry, sad or joyous.” This sort of thinking initiated by sound is particularly of abstract character. In this sense, music is an expression of abstract thinking that extracting the characteristics of beings. We borrow quite often the “musicality,” a term of auditory art, to help interpreting the feeling of rhythm in plastic art, as which is a matter concerning the “expression of emotion” and the “empathy.” We can always encounter the marvelous joy caused by the transposition of the senses in the thinking with language, just as in Shakespeare’s lines:

  Advanced their eyelids, lifted up their noses

  As they smelt music: so I charm'd their ears

  One of the essential elements of music is yùn (lit.“rhyme,”“musical sound,” or “charm” ), and the regulation formed by yùn(s) forms the “rhythm.” This is a common feature shared by all forms of art. I tried summing up the abstractness in music and providing it as a reference to interpret the abstractness in poetry and in visual art, as there are some analogies among these forms. In the nineteenth century, an Indian named Ānandavardhana wrote in his Dhvanyāloka[1]:

  “The meaning that the knowers of poetry singing the praise of is defined as soul of poetry. It’s said it is expressed in two modes: the literal and the implied (suggested).”

  “However, in the great language (poem), the implied (suggested) meaning is something different ; it is obviously something over and above (different from) the beauty of the various parts of the body (parts), just like the charm of a girl.”

  “The great poets are of greatness just because they excel at employing the suggestive meaning and suggestive words, but not because they can fabricate the meaning of ‘said’ and words of ‘saying.’”

  “Dhvani[2] cannot be perceived by those who merely know words and their meaning, but can only perceived by those who know the meaning of poetry and the true meanings.”

  Here, the musical elements have been associated with poetry, as the structure the poetry, though it belongs to the category of literature, cannot do without rhythms. By the same token, the structure of visual art cannot do if without musicality.

  II. Abstract Image in Poetry

  With respect to abstractness in thinking with language, the poetry is in a class by itself. The poetic implication as well as the manifestation of poetic realm are possible owing to the polysemy and implicitness of the syntax of poetry and to the abstractness presented in it. In poetry, juxtaposition of non-specific nouns can provoke the imagination that has rich meanings. An example could be the first line of “Prelude to the Water Melody,” a ci[3] poetry by Su Dongpo:

  When will the moon be clear and bright? With a cup of wine in my hand, I ask the blue sky.

  In this line, the “moon” and “wine” are the non-specific nouns, as there are no any specific prescription to them, and therefore, (we have no idea exactly about the questions like) “in what time and what season did the moon appear” and “what kind was the wine.” It is such kind of technique that makes manifestation of the poetic realm possible, as it is such kind of nouns that conveys incomplete messages tends to cause associations; if, contrariwise, the poetry is written too figuratively, or narratively, then the lyrical expression will be dull.

  The other rhetorical methods often employed in composing poetry include metonymy, simile, paradox and double-meaning. These methods serve efficiently to convey the abstract connotation. To give an example, Jia Dao, a major figure of the poetry school of Languishing Chant in late Tang Dynasty, ever wrote a poem titled "Morning Hunger," in which there is a line as below:

  Last night I heard the zither under the western window,

  Two or three strings breaking off in the freeze.

  This line expressed the hunger after waking up early morning. If literally restated (with standard Mandarin), its figurative meaning is rather plain, however, there does echo the overtone of the words that causes amazement. He didn’t tell directly the suffering from hunger, but conveyed it through the metonymy, specifically, suggesting the poor condition with the breaking of the strings, and intensifying the unbearableness of hunger with the sharpened sound. Although the poem focused on the concrete object, it offers an experience of wealthy suggestions. While the poetic abstract is achieved by aid of the syntax of language, the visual abstract is by the visible images. The latter is of a different domain, but even so, it has an intimate relationship with the poetic thinking, as the thinking with language can be transformed into the thinking with images or thinking with forms. Now, let’s look into the abstract in the visuals.

  III. Abstract in Visual

  Abstract, which reveals the non-concreteness in visual art, intends to produce implication in forms. I’m not saying that the concrete art cannot do it, but that it is done on the premise that the image is concrete and recognizable and it is different the kind in abstract image-the experience of the multiplied meanings that are not concrete and recognizable. The visual cognition of abstract visual form does possess the recognizability of the kind of objective beings. The abstract art can be sketchily divided into the following types:

  1. Representational Abstract

  The abstract form of the representational mode is normally resulted from simplifying objective appearances and is somewhat done by extraction. For example, the curved wave shape can be an abstract expression of wave or water flows; the rays can be of sun or radiation; the triangle can be of hills; and the like. A typical example could be the ornaments on surface of the primitive colored potteries in China, or, the traditional Chinese painting of the expressionistic (xieyi[4]) style. The abstractness in such sort of forms can initiate aesthetic pleasure in viewers while they experiencing the multiplied meanings that detaching from the objective beings, but also being able to resume to recognize the objective form.

  The representativeness is a property interdependent with the recognizability of objects, therefore, the abstraction under the mode of representation is an extraction or simplification that corresponding with reality. Although the outcome is not of the replication of objective forms, however, it hasn’t yet entered the cognition system which has completely aliened itself from the objective images and founded the laws and logics of its own. The majority of abstract visual arts of today can be categorized into this box; and strictly speaking, the abstract of the representational mode has just entered in part the domain of abstract thinking.

  2. Expressionistic Abstract

  The abstract form of the expressionistic mode passes by the abstract representation in accordance with objective appearance and enters immediately the autonomous system of abstract thinking. By and large, this system has been freed from the limits of objective forms. It is no longer about using triangle to indicate hill, or using curves to indicate water, but a pool of suggestive symbols. The geometric induction is virtually the induction of space, or, as in Yi Jing (“Classics of Change”), the hieroglyphic number symbols used to signify the laws of universe are virtually the induction of the essence of beings. The expressionistic abstract is not a mere outcome of an odd inspiration, but a system of thinking. It has clear logics, reflects in its formal characteristics the generalization and integration of the beings, and forges the expressionistic symbols of beings, such as absolute music, designations identifying things, spirit and charm expressing the situation and dynamics, rhythm and visual form. To give an example, the most original function of calligraphy art is supposed to convey meanings, as the Chinese characters are the signs of language; when they are lifted up to be a type of art, their literal meanings descend to the secondary position and the characters become a kind of visual form which is still attached to the function of linguistic symbols but claims its purpose is to express the beauty of form, and this is exactly the formal exaggeration of Chinese characters, that is, calligraphy. When such exaggeration reached a certain of realm, the form of Chinese characters becomes a visual art that has expressive visual form. Calligraph is a type of art of specific quality, as it cannot only be read and understood, but also, for its beauty of form, be looked and appreciated. For this very reason, even a foreigner who has least knowledge about Chinese can also seize the visual aesthetic unleashed by the “situation and dynamics” of calligraph art. This does suggest a mode of thinking that abstract art can make reference. Here, since we have come to talk about “symbol,” then let me elaborate it more precisely.

  3) Symbol: Kin of Abstract

  Symbols, according to Susanne Langer, can be divided into two types: one is the discursive symbolism that involves the articulation of external definition and is predicated on the structure of linguistic syntax; the other is the presentational symbolism that involves the articulation of individual’s inner life and feelings. Indeed, the first kind can be understood as the “representational symbol” while the second as the “expressionistic symbol” as I defined above.

  When involved in symbolization, sign substitutes or indicates something else or different abstract idea(s), for example, the color and pattern of a national flag indicate the supreme national consciousness of a country; the religious signs or totems likewise.

  What a symbol means depends upon its position in a particular setting, for example, a warning sign only makes sense in the domain it is applied to. Zoology is another example. Cat and tiger are both members of the Felidae family, an integration in terms of their physiological features. In this sense, the “Felidae family” is the symbol shared by cat, tiger and the like. As to the symbols in artistic expression, however, we can, however, break down the categorization, such as the zoological phylum, class, family and genus; thereby, for artist, to draw a tiger with a cat as model is possible.

  The symbols may also be distinguished into the organic symbols and the non-organic symbols. The former are those used in literature and art to express the structure of inner feelings, and the latter are used to designate the scientific information structure. In the artistic message of feelings, symbol and content are of an organic entity and it’s purposed to express the bearing relationship; it contains allegory; the structure in itself and the meaning it conveys correspond with each other. This is a law which is allowed autonomy and self-operation. In the other type, the scientific information structure, the symbol and content are of nonorganic entity, and there is no a necessary nexus between the inner and the outer; it plays a functional role and serves to bear memory and recognition; it is not about psychic feeling and non-expressionistic, and has no independent meaning, just like symbols of addition (+), subtraction (-), multiplication ( ×) and division (÷).

  The reason I sorting the relationships between the symbols and two modes of abstract, the representational and the expressionistic, is for providing some referential points for thinking about the abstract in art. In the last part of this article, I will try to sum up the properties of abstract.

  IV. What is Abstract

  The abstract thinking, on the one hand, tends to be detaching, destructing, opting and excluding, just as the representational abstract art; and on the other, generalization, governing, associating, just as the representational abstract art. To some extent, abstract means to detach and simplify objects. Nevertheless, detachment and simplification are not of the essence of abstract, but merely the method. Abstraction shall proceed on the level of integrative understanding of beings, and it is of the philosophical relation “generality exists in the particularity.” Abstraction is to analyze but not to destruct, to integrate but not to synthesize things. Abstraction requires a lift of object up to a higher judgment which prioritizes the commonness but also allows the existence of particularity, as it is of a generalization. Abstraction shall refract things and reveal its whole but not the parts. An example in this respect is the geometry and the algebra in mathematics, which are of the very abstract induction of the relationship between materials’ spatial forms and their quantities, and their researches are about the construction of the objective world. Inspired by M.H.J. Schoenmaekers’s concept of “plastic mathematics,” Mondrian employed the geometrical figures as his fundamental painting elements and used the linear segmentation to generalize phenomena and orders, as he believed that through the right angle he could observe calmly into the interior of beings. As to whether or not he achieved it, it’s arguable. In my opinion, in view of the formal logics of visual art, I don’t think Mondrian has completely achieved the abstract in the language of visual art, as he tried to transform the reality into a structure that theory can govern, and, by doing so, turn the structure of abstract into a fundamental point for observing the beings; but Kandinsky achieved this respect. Otherwise, in view of mathematical logics, M.C.Escher achieved manifesting the paradox in visual abstract. Kandinsky integrated visually the concrete beings and his visual logics is abstract, whereas Escher represented the spatial perception in the era of non-Euclidean geometry and the fundamental characteristics of his images are the curves, circuitousness and entanglement that make space “having limits but no borders.” With visual images, he articulated a particular existential form of beings: the beginning of one thing is often the ending of another thing, the origin and the termination are of one - this is exactly the essence of Escher’s idea. Do we dare to assume: the expressionistic abstract art is also possible to be taken into the thinking mode of mathematical logics and the mathematical relations to be transformed into images?

  Virtually, the nature of abstract art is about structure and construction, which are also the mathematical approaches. Vladimir Tatlin, a Russian painter and architect, is the first to explore the three-dimensional space. His work “The Monument to the Third International” is an architecture that has “a spiral iron framework supporting the main body consists of a glass cylinder, a glass cone and a glass cube. This main body is suspended on a movable asymmetrical axle, and just like a leaning Eiffel Tower, it will continue its rotating rhythm and extend until into the sky. Such a ‘movement’ has not been limited in the immobile design.” In a constructive manner, Tatlin integrated sculpture and architecture, moved the art away from imitation governed by “theory of reflection” to the autonomous creation, and resultantly brought about a set of methodology of autonomy. Under such a methodology, the works are considerably alienated away from the objective images and moved towards the abstraction and generality. Thereby, it transcended both the individuality and nationality, freed the sculpture from the previous definition as an art of shape and volume, and made it possible that sculpture redefines the space by constructing the structure-in a word, sculpture has since become an art of spatiality.

  Abstract and concrete are literally opposite to each other, and abstract art however definitely does not contradict the truth of emotion. It is unambiguous and recognizable, not the contrary. Abstract art is too not the mysticism, but a genus in the domain of symbols. For example, when the lion, the beast of prey, is perceived as something of generality (such as its zoological genus and characteristics), it is not abstract but figurative; however, when it is regarded as the symbol of intrepidity and used as a symbol stands for the spirit of being valor and majestic, it becomes abstract and, also, contains the integrative truth. In this sense, there is a correspondent relationship between lion’s image and expressionistic symbol. Another kind of abstract, in which image and expressionistic symbol seemingly do not correspond, initiate the metaphysical perception of beings by aid of abstract symbols. Such abstract is mainly reflected in symbolic relationship that is geometric, constructive and integrative.

  To extract of points, lines and planes from the object’s appearance and with which to convey its characteristics, often lead to destruct and reduce the beings; on this account, abstraction is an integrative process of abandoning the nonessential characteristics of things and extract the essentials ones that constitutes it. In art, abstract refers to any image distilled from the real things; it extracts rational knowledge from the world of senses, but definitely not destruct things or extract the ordinary formal construction.

  That abstract art is freed from the restraints of objective forms embodies the subjectivation of visual art. For the last time, I would like to emphasize: abstract shall analyze not destruct, integrate not synthesize; the essence of abstract shall be an articulation system of the visual language that contains mathematic relationships.

  [1] Translator’s note: theory of Suggestion in Poetry, or Light of Suggestion; the title of its Chinese version is translated Light of Charm.

  [2] Translator’s note: echo, resonance; yùn

  [3] Translator’s note: Ci, a type of classical Chinese poetry, originating in the Tang Dynasty and fully developed in the Song Dynasty. (translation note)

  [4] Xie means “to write” and Yi the “meaning”. A famous Master of Chinese painting, Zhang Daqian, said that Xieyi indicated the fact of drawing the spirit of the beings. Painting Xieyi uses many techniques of calligraphy which privilege the spontaneity of the line. Paintings Xieyi are thus very quickly carried out but it needs a very long experience.


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