Conceptual ArtThere has always been a kind of rift between art and the "common" man. In ancient times, the painting master was held in awe well above the Pope and just slightly below God himself. This was because the artist made the unfathomable, simple. The rift was narrow. In contrast, at its widest in the fifties and sixties, the artist was often view by the "common" man as either a con man or a crazy. Either he was attempting to hoodwink the public into accepting "anything" as art, or he was foisting the evidence of his own insanity upon the public. He was esteemed a little above the used car dealer and a little below the door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman.
Today, happily, the gap has narrowed some. Abstraction is just another art style. No one is being pressed to "love" it or even "understand" it. An interesting phenomenon I sometimes see as a high school art instructor is the student who embraces abstract art not out of any understanding of it in the least, but because his parents "hate" it and it seems "easy" to do. This is not too surprising because abstraction was born of a rebellious nature. However, often this type of teenage artist suffers from what I call "drawing deficit disorder" or, learning to paint before learning to draw. Being an artist presupposes that individual has something to say. I often see students who "love" art but lack the self-discipline needed to "create" anything more than the occasional "happy accident" that may reflect more my pushing them than their own efforts. Abstraction should spring from some concept. I discourage students from involved in abstraction because by and large they don't respect the results themselves unless their peers do, and that's very rare. No one in this world is more object-oriented than teenagers and abstraction by definition lacks objectivity. It is totally subjective.
I have however, led teenagers "near" abstraction through conceptual art, wherein an idea is present for their development into some type of artwork. Example: Explore a myth. A discussion ensues as to what a myth is, then proceeds to types of myths (classical, modern, or popular misconceptions, etc.) and from there into specific myths and ways to "explore" them (not just illustrate them by the way). From that point they must brainstorm various approaches to getting "inside" their myth, the best media to be used, and then specific technical and compositional problems. This is the all-important "head work" and it is crucial to any artwork based upon ideas or emotions, representational or non-representational. Once the initial work is completed, the next step "could" be some form of abstraction, based upon a thorough understanding of the concept, into a more personal form of painted expression, which might or might not be representational. When finished, what appeared at the outset to be "easy" art any 6-year-old could do, ends up being one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging experiences they've ever had. In the end they as artists have a respect for abstraction and what their peers (or parents) think about their work matters less and less to them. Students cannot "short circuit" this path if they want to be an abstract artist. Anything less is merely playing in paint. The paintings will mean very little to them and even less to everyone else.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
11 March 1998