Abstraction as Art

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Drawn by the seventeen-year-old me with fine-tipped permanent marker and time to kill

Of the skills in the Artist’s repertoire, the ability to create abstractions outshines all others. My blog’s subtitle, “Thought as Art,” reflects this essence.

I have read only one work on aesthetics, which I understand to mean the study of value; I also have a vague notion that art and beauty are somehow related to the term.

Rather than punching in “what is art?” online and passively absorbing the responses, I’d rather take a stab at the subject myself. I’ve always wondered where the hell all these answers come from (I once asked Jeeves—yea that’s right—”Why the hell are people such assholes”? and received, surprisingly, many useful responses).

Now on to my position concerning abstractions as art.

It is the abstract framework within which any element takes on significance. It is the abstract framework where categorization meets organization in a subjective fashion. Conceptualization (abstract-ing) is a deliberate philosophic exercise, but I think at this juncture philosophy becomes art.

To me philosophy means the art of forming opinion based on fact—for now the best definition of art I can concoct is “a deliberate, subjective act of creation.”

The manner in which we view life, the philosophies that guide us always await creation. Though we may very well be made of stars and our bodies are thus not ours, what reality means to us is open to interpretation, collectively and individually.

We are all artists, and we’ve been creating all along. Awareness of this ability is necessary in order to maximize our creative power.

In For the New Intellectual, Ayn Rand wrote that she needed to have fully fledged philosophies before she could begin writing the many novels that illuminated them. Her art relied upon the creation of an abstract system.

Carl Rogers acknowledged the expressly philosophic bent of his psychology, reaching to phenomenology as a means to structure his view of consciousness. Numerous other psychologists who understand the very role of their discipline realize and give credit to the role of abstract conceptual frameworks in their field.

Historians are tasked with constructing, based purely on preference, large-scale narratives that provide structure for the otherwise inchoate instantiations of events. Japan’s “Golden Age” and The French Revolution are abstract placeholders created to contain certain segments of the past for purposes of convenient chronology.

I have doubtless made the point elsewhere (though I forget where) that the lived life is the highest art—but without the concepts that promote or cast significance upon actions, a life is meaningless and cannot be art. Art must be deliberate, in my opinion.

In her work on aesthetics, Rand wrote the only definition of art of which I am aware: art is the concretization of abstraction. It is the making “real” of our ideas.

Furthermore, some existentialists, philosophers after whom I model much of my philosophy, contend that there is nothing beyond the actual lived life. Some of the very people who view an individual self-created life as the highest art also contend that only the making real of one’s art matters.

I am of the mind, however, that abstraction does not require an empirical manifestation in order to be deemed art. It is totally possible to concoct a poem in the mind, or envisage some strange extraterrestrial landscape in a daydream. Neither of these has “made real,” or concretized art in the empirical world, but there has to be some way to deem these actions art. These do, however, strike intuition as being among the lower types of art, so let us carry on to the main point.

To visualize the position, we may view abstractions as asymptotic with respect to concretes:

asymptotesSomething may be completely abstract: it touches the line of abstraction. Logic and math are examples; these systems are completely devoid of concrete materiality.

Concretes, on the other hand, are empirical objects: objects of sense, such as the words on this screen, or that coffee dripping through your veins. Abstractions and concretes are linked, and my position starts from the abstractions.

As abstractions approach actual concretes, they take on more and more materiality.

The notion of Man is abstract, though less abstract than logic or math because we only know of Man (that is, human nature, the essence of humanity) through experience of actual people—but it’s still pretty abstract. But if we approach an actual person as they appear in their immediacy, we may then describe certain qualities of this actual person: they have a certain stature, are clothed in a certain way, etc. We have moved further from the abstract notion of Man; we are now describing an actual person.

You may note, however, that the line starting with abstractions never actually touches concretes. How could they? Language is abstract. Even though you were to say, describe a particular person through speech, this being an actual physical act involving vocal folds and sound waves, the communication is merely linguistic. Communication itself—regardless of the medium—is intangible.

Even when communicating nonverbally, such as a heartfelt hug expressing adoration, the communication is still not wholly concrete; the empirical-abstract distinction simply dissolves into unity. The differences, being so entangled, become irrelevant and therefore nonexistent.

I’ll use the metaphor of asymptote again, but starting from the view of the concrete as it regards the role abstractions play in action. This very perspective is the starting point for sociopolitical philosophy and ethics.

To sum up my position—though I have not really argued for it—is to state that the artist’s most significant endeavor is to deliberately fashion abstract concepts. The use of these concepts teem with potential to understand, direct, and create lives. If this is the case we might want to be sure we are on the right side of a powerful concept, or at least understand the justification for concepts we put our efforts behind.

Many people start with the here and now, the immediate and concrete, and sort of “look up” to abstractions to guide their actions. They begin with and identify with concrete reality. But I cannot.

My starting point is in the unseen.

But if I identify my Self with such abstractions, to what extent do “I” concretely exist?