My Dog Could Paint That: What Makes Abstract Art "Art"

I meet people surprisingly often who will look at an abstract painting and say “that’s not art”, or “my kid could do that”. Unbelievably, there are still curmudgeons out there who furiously denounce non-representational art, whether they’re at a local art fair or at the MOMA.

Annoying as those comments are to abstract artists, it does put the onus on us to try to open up some minds about what, in fact, does make abstract art “art”, and not simply a decorative craft along the lines of a hand made cushion or a hand-beaded purse (or a finger-painting by a 4 year old).  I have participated in this debate a hundred times and one of the big themes of the discussion is always artist intent.
I have always known why I do what I do. I know why I create the type of art I create, what I am trying to portray, and what it means to me. But I have also up until now had sort of a que sera attitude; if people appreciate my work, then great. If they don’t, that’s fine too.  People have their own reasons for choosing one work of art over another, and to try to sway them is pointless and unfair. I hate salespeople and I never want to be one.

So while I have always known what the intent of my work is, it is something I have been reluctant to share. I just find that artist descriptions can often cross the line into the ridiculous, so I keep mine to myself. But the more time I spend in the art world the more I realize how important it is for artists to explain their practice, process and/or intent in clear, concise terms.  The clearer I am about my objectives, the more people can appreciate my work as fine art, not only as a decorative object. Don’t get me wrong, if you like my work because the colours match your throw pillows, then great! Bby all means buy my paintings and hang them above your sofa. But if an understanding of the purpose, relevance and influences of the piece will offer you a deeper enjoyment of the work for years to come and maybe even help the work rise in value, then I probably have an obligation to provide you with that information.

Why is intent important? Why is it a differentiating factor between art and decorative craft? Because the point of craft is to create something handmade, original and well… decorative. The point of art is richer and more layered. Good art does not function in and of itself, but as a culmination of history, study, rules, rule-breaking, societal and cultural changes and so many more factors that are impossible to count. Abstract art can be thought provoking- it can be culturally or historically relevant – it can be disturbing, it can be beautiful and decorative, or all of the above.
So what about those people who wander around art fairs and mumble under their breaths that a monkey could paint that? Interestingly, a study that was published a few years ago in  Psychological Science Journal found that people can, in fact, distinguish professional abstract expressionist paintings from similar paintings by children, chimps, monkeys and elephants. They can’t always explain how they know the difference, but they do. What’s the distinction? Intent. Is it possible for an elephant to create a valid abstract expressionist work of art? Possibly…as a fluke. Can he create a consistent series? Portray his chosen and thoughtful objective? Not so much.
Art doesn’t have to be “about” something obvious in order for it to be good or valid. It can convey a mood or a feeling, or simply be about the artist’s interaction with the materials used to create the piece. Abstraction is the artist’s way of representing what is within instead of reproducing something from the outside.  As Georgia O’Keefe said in reference to her abstract works: “The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can clarify in paint.” True that.
So in the interest of practising what I’m preaching, I have updated my website to include a comprehensive artist statement. Link to my website here for more info.

Thanks for reading!
Abstract art should be enjoyed just as music is enjoyed –
after a while you may like it or you may not.