Social Function of Abstract Painting

Abstract painting can easily be misunderstood when and if  it’s essential substances are confused. In this paper, I shall make an effort at renewal in re-constructing thoughts and ideas of discovering what the essential substances are in abstract or non representational painting.

What is the social function of abstract art? The question of this sort have always been asked. Many of the criticism and studies have relied on the development of the self (Freud) by the action of painting and the development of the notion of superstructure in the modernist tradition, its production and its ideologies and multiple tendencies.

For example, Walter Benjamin, the pre war Marxist critic, reflects the alteration of the social function of modern art in the artistic superstructure that the capitalist mode of production processes. According to his idea, these production are no longer hallowed cult objects but disparaging them in his view, simply consumer goods sold on the market.

Obviously,  the  abstract productions of painting and sculpture should not be confused with mechanical processes. From the beginning to the  present time, abstract work have  never lost their essential substance and always retained the aura and traditional authority as the unique art objects of the past. Art in the abstract manner is a revolt against the conventions. An artist can only be creative if he can transmit his rebellion to his work. So in this context, I do not think any artists could appreciate or find useful criticism of his work, and any criticism would do any good to any artist.

The social function and the meaning of art directly involve with the concrete characteristics of the individual life of those who produce them.

Every work of art carries its   raison de etre within itself and if it is  able to assert this raison de etre through its specific structure, which is powerful enough to  make itself known and needs no other explanation than that which it contains  within itself.

In order to understand abstract artists and the social function or the  purpose of their work, and the reason why they were created, one has to look specificities of the social/ cultural life of the period in which these  work are created. and the idea that underlie the reasons for their creation. Since the work of art  is produced by man, it must be explained and judged differently from a product of nature or mechanical processes. Aesthetic criteria that are related to product of nature  can not be applied to  works of art. It is unique  to human beings to perceive a work of art with this processes of it’s  realization, is in a way to decipher the aim of  it’s creator and this is one  of the social function of abstract art.

This in turn is only possible by exploring together with the work of art itself. The process of its development and it’s relationship to the nature of mankind and its retrospective roots in human civilization. Therefore the social  function  of abstract art  is hidden in the crucial indispensable relation between its formal and material elements; the mass of spectators who find it hard to perceive the relationship, find it difficult to decipher the aim of its creators and  therefore take refuge  in the  established elements of meaning of the work of art,  in the perception and interpretations. For example if the work does not incorporate  figurative formations which refer to any established realities of the spectator,  than the spectator does not understands it. To him it is simply as an abstraction based on  decorative and formal concerns.  Because of the limited parameters that dominate an ordinary spectators aesthetic judgment. It is not possible for him to relate to these crucial  elements  of context. Hence he is limited to  its dispensable  or non crucial substance so, a priory the work of abstract art will be confused and  misunderstood.

In our opinion, painting process, no matter what the form or kind,   is ruled by conceptual thinking.  This is more obvious in figure drawing. Because it is based on scientific thinking and calculations.  In  figure drawing one must be able to visualize  the relation between the fragments to the  whole before transmitting them convincingly. But this scientific exactness does not require an artistic creativity. If the distinction between  essential substances  and  unessential aspect of the art work is not made, art is essentially misunderstood. That is common mistake in art criticism.  Because if  we approach art from this  point , it  does injustice to its very nature, and leads to repeating certain conventional manner as well as its misinterpretation.

We think it is necessary  for an artist to divert these conceptual  processes from the representational to conceptual, enabling   him to produce more creative and unique work.

In our days there are considerable number of artists whose  works are basically abstract and who had already established themselves as  considerable artists. Perhaps the appreciation of abstraction needs more sophisticated knowledge and intelligence in compare to the figurative art. The philosophy behind the abstraction process in contemporary art are not easily understood by the public. The artists are  lonely, passionate,  intense and struggle painfully with their art.

Abstract artists move slowly and methodically like scientists. We know that, after a characteristic period of withdrawal and isolation or seclusion many New-Expressionists in Germany and in the United States have suddenly emerged  with their full abstract speed in a free and brilliant manner.

Contrary to some critics idea a of  overcoming the uniqueness of art by accepting itís mechanical reproduction of its multiples, abstract painting in recent times, plays its ritual role. It is highly contemplated by the observer with or without keeping a distance from them.

Abstract painting have two main human inclinations and essential substances that opposed each other. They also appear in  its various expression such as the direct creation of universal beauty, and The aesthetic expression of oneself.

According to  the modernist theory, abstract art does not only concentrate on personal approach and style but also it concentrates on material which  is strictly plastic. We also derive some ideas from the critics and artists that painting have two main human inclinations which opposed each other. This mental disposition toward the process also appear in its various expression:

1st. The expression of self actualization

2nd.The expression of totality and the harmony of physical universe.

In the self actualization, for example, the mind empties itself and collapses into itself (disappearing). In the second inclination, the mind absorbs everything in the universe into itself, growing bigger and bigger until the final explosion like a chaotic vortex.

In my 40 years of personal experience and opinion, I consider abstract art  especially non representational painting have to be comprehended as expressive rather than formal expression.

Abstract painting, is going into the personal unconscious mind  with the attempt to seek the universal elements of the collective unconscious (Jung) of humanity. The archetypes of the objects goes back to the Plato’s idea  of  universal form (2 ).

Some people would say that there is no social function of abstract art. Because no society needs it !î.  We would say, that  the society might be unaware of  its deeper unconscious needs. It needs an a priori, (from the beginning), to be presented  with  already formed images by the artists which therefore the general consciousness of society can attach itself to, as in a seedling. I would compare this to  Stendhal’s theory of crystallization (1) in love. So the people need a visible object, that shows there is an unconscious and normally invisible side to life. In our present  time, abstract art  has come to be a repository of these unconscious invisible emotions and  aspects of life.

So the social function of non-representational painting is that Abstract images subordinate the conventional reality to the inner  dictates of human consciousness. And thereby functions to  create a new reality  for the collective perception of society.

Categories are the nuisance of the art critic. Many artists do not feel that they belong to  a group or a school. By definition, they are individuals. Because  there are always some artist who can not be  fitted neatly into any category or division.

(1)Theory of  Cristalization: It refers to the process of cristalisation as Stendhal expressed it in his novel Love; Penguen Classics Volume No:7, Penguen Books, London 1975

(2) Plato’s Cave Plato, Republic, Book: VII, pp 218-220


And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching

all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.I see. And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying allsorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of woodand stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, orthe shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wallof the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?  And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows? Yes, he said. And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them? Very true. And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow? No question, he replied. To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images. That is certain. And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to seethe realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him? Far truer. And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him? And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he ‘s forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities . Not all in a moment, he said.

Adem Genç

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