UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Understanding Abstraction 

Whenever someone looks at a piece of abstract art and says, “Well, I could have done that,” my immediate response is a blunt, direct “No, you couldn’t have.” I stand by that assertion despite bemused and annoyed counterarguments, and I explain that the primary reason they couldn’t have done it is quite simply because they didn’t do it. Art doesn’t happen by accident or without intentionality. Art, even seemingly chaotic pieces of abstract expressionism, is not just a disorganized collection of color and lines.

Sometimes people who look at abstract art dismissively deride it even more harshly by saying “my six-year-old kid could do that.” I respond with my same direct answer. “No, they couldn’t.” There’s a clear distinction between intentional pieces of abstract art and the whimsical play of a child. Abstract art is guided by concepts such as geometry, color theory, contrast, relationship, light, shade, and meaning. That concept of meaning is what often gives viewers pause. But, in fact, the movement is called abstract “expressionism” for a reason. The artist is most certainly expressing intentional meaning. 

Numerous studies have confirmed how easy it is to tell the difference between high quality abstract art and a child’s scribblings or an amateur’s attempt to mimic it. Researchers will pair various pieces of professional art by trained experienced artists with the work of a child. When they share these art pairings with audiences with varying degrees of artistic knowledge and experience, there is little doubt about which is which. Time and again viewers can instinctively identify the high quality intentional pieces, and more than 80% of viewers can easily discern the professional art from others’ work.

I’m often bemused by people who criticize and dismiss a beautiful abstract color palette but then marvel at the abstract beauty of a sunset. Living in Colorado, a land of expansive overwhelming landscapes that truly inspire, I think of and appreciate abstract art the same way I marvel at the grandeur of a breathtaking sky. Those stunning displays of color, with swirls and blends are the spirit of abstraction. In fact, appreciating landscapes is a helpful avenue into understanding abstraction. When people gaze at a picturesque mountain valley or a breathtaking sunset or a grove of golden aspens, they are quite literally appreciating the beauty of abstract art and color theory.

Abstraction has a close connection in both art and literature with the concept of distortion. Writer Flannery O’Connor once said, “I am interested in making a good case for distortion, as I am coming to believe that it is the only way to make people see.” Distorting something to make people truly “see” it seems to be counter-intuitive, though one could argue that all literature distorts information in order to make the point clear. From exaggeration to understatement to stock characters, metaphors, and cliched endings, abstraction and distortion can make the truth plain to see.  

Often that truth, that revelation, can only come from – in Flannery O’Connor’s word – distortion.  How often have we encountered characters who only truly exemplify a trait or an idea because the trait is so glaringly obvious? How often have we told “some stretchers,” as Huck claims Mr. Mark Twain did, in order to  impact an audience and help them “see” what we mean? Distortion and abstraction are natural parts of our language and our thinking.

This concept of distortion is particularly interesting because the word has a negative connotation. Certainly, to exaggerate a detail is in some ways deceptive. It might even be dishonest. But if we shift away from the concept of “distorting” and instead focus on simply emphasizing, then the act seems almost necessary.  

Artist John Kascht, whose caricatures of many iconic figures have become iconic themselves, explains that he is not distorting the figures he draws but instead magnifying their traits.  Kascht’s works have been featured in the Smithsonian, and his video explanation of his craft as he draws Conan O’Brien is fascinating in its analysis of the concept of artistic distortion – or magnification, emphasis, exaggeration, even abstraction.

This concept of emphasizing an idea or subject beyond its obvious reality is integral to our understanding of art, especially movements like impressionism, cubism, and abstract expressionism.  And whether it’s the writing of Flannery O’Connor or the caricature art of John Kascht, whether it’s the literary genre of Romanticism or the philosophical concepts of postmodernism, the techniques of abstraction and distortion are integral to the beauty of art.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com