Seeing Without Understanding: The Delightful Contribution Of Abstract Art To Modern Life

The announcement by the Art Gallery at NYU Abu Dhabi promises a series of events and workshops for the public program about its current exhibition. While it may inspire some of the attendees to cultivate their own artistic talent, others will walk away with a deeper appreciation for the ambiguity, magic, and beauty of art.

Art interrupts our stressful life the way a warm breeze might interrupt agitated thoughts. In the presence of beautiful art, our concern with business success and adapting to the ever increasing pace of changing technology falls away like a disturbing dream.

Art reminds us of our creativity and self-expression. It reminds us that we are human beings, not organic machines caught up in an endless web of projects that have to be accomplished by a hard deadline.

While almost everyone immediately appreciates realistic art — art which captures a person or place with the unerring accuracy of a photograph — abstract art takes a little more patience and thought to value.


Painting by Mohamed Amine Belarbi. Title: Turbulence

Part of its mystery and charm is that it uses a visual language that we’re unfamiliar with, creating a composition of shapes, forms, and colors that are almost ineffable. Comprehending the meaning and purpose of abstract paintings is never immediate. They delight and startle us because they appear independent of our usual visual references of how the world has been put together.

The Birth of Abstract Art

Abstract art made its debut in the 20th century as a visceral response to advances in science, technology, and our changing world view. In the midst of two horrendous world wars, the human psyche frantically sought meaning in a world gone mad.

Before the tumultuous and unnerving 20th century, art was well-behaved, logical, and consistent. It was always a reference to real life. Even imaginary scenes with unrealistic figures in visionary landscapes were composed in a realistic way.

Abstract art celebrated Romanticism, Expressionism, and Impressionism. It rebelled against the rigid, formal, and idealistic art commissioned by church authorities. Private patronage replaced church patronage and artists strayed from orthodoxy, dogma, and nuanced messaging.

A Language of Its Own

Even today, abstract expression confuses, upsets, insults and disturbs people. It has a language all its own. All our traditional values on what art should look like appear to have been tossed aside.

In some compositions, colors may blend; in others, they may clash. In some compositions, lines may be elegant; in others, they may roam chaotically on a canvas. And in some compositions, shapes may be discernible, sensible; in others, they may appear bereft of meaning, even nonsensical.

Abstract expression delights in unpredictability.

Surprisingly Popular

Despite its vocal critics, abstract art is only growing in popularity. In fact, collectors are seeing this form of contemporary art as an investment and the work of famous artists will retain their value over a long time.

Today, most of the controversy around abstract art has lost its political, ecclesiastical, or puritanical fire. Apart from disorganized malcontents, abstract art has been adopted by mainstream culture across the world. It’s now viewed as a provocative way of titillating the senses and expanding possibility thinking.

You can see abstract art everywhere in society. In the sculptures outside an art theater, in the painting lining a hotel lobby, in the photographs of a magazine. Interior designers suggest them to clients to add more color, coordination, and contrast to a dreary room and book designers suggest it to authors as a way to improve visual marketing.

Gradients of Radicalism

Although abstract art is unpredictable and far from uniform, it’s still possible to talk about gradients of abstract expression the way you might talk about cuisine:

Mild: this type of abstract art gives realism a friendly nod. Modified shapes and colors only make a small departure from realism.

Moderate: this type of abstract art exaggerates reality, but it still anchors in some aspects of it.

Severe: this type of abstract art appears to have no roots in reality. It’s not only a flight from reality; it’s often unrecognizable and has no discernible meaning or order.

This diversity is not contrived, but a result of different artistic temperaments working in different cultures and different influences. They can be considered as different artistic statements about how they view the mysteries of time, space, dust, agony, ecstasy, life, purpose, and human destiny.

Permission to Be Obscure

While there are no psychological theories about why society has accepted abstract art in its wildly creative form, one possible reason might be that it gives us permission to not have to understand everything we see.

Abstract art frees us from the conventions of a technological society where everything is measured and balanced to be functional. While engineers and software developers are constrained by the rigor of meaning, artists are free, like birds high in the air to spin and twirl as they please. Abstract art frees us from the iron dictates of logic; forcing us to feel something, anything, everything. It jolts us out of our complacency, forcing us to seek meaning in apparent chaos and symmetry where contrast is predominant.

Photo Credit: Sothebys