Well, there may certainly be more than one sense of the term "abstract." If we want to look for a macro-level definition that applies to all the arts, we can certainly do that. But we have to accept that there will be some limits on its usefulness -- particularly if it leads us to the conclusion that nearly all instrumental music is abstract. There may be some benefit in thinking about music that way, but we are doing ourselves a real disservice if we do not also ask ourselves whether abstraction means something entirely different on a "micro" or "granular" level within the field of music.
And music may, in fact, be a good deal more representational than the average listener realizes. A composer may say to himself, "This theme represents how I feel about Clara Schumann," or "This theme represents how I feel about being kicked out of my college fraternity because I'm homosexual," or "This theme represents how I feel about what Stalin has said about my work," and then work that theme into a composition. The resulting piece is certainly representational from the composer's point of view, whether anyone else understands it or not. In the third instance, musicologists still don't entirely agree on exactly what Shostakovich meant by his Fifth Symphony, but it clearly does mean something
. In his biography of Mozart, Maynard Solomon finds the composer's suppressed rage at his father welling up in the left-hand part of a piano sonata, and explains it so clearly that you can see it, right there in the notes on the page.
When you look at a painting and you can recognize that it shows a group of cows in a field, then you know it is not abstract, it is a pastoral landscape. If it's a decent painting you can find variations or differences among the cows that were put there intentionally by the artist. If it's a really good painting, you might even be able to infer some kind of narrative from what certain cows appear to be doing or looking at. If you hear a piece of music and you can recognize that a certain theme is repeating and overlapping itself at various points within a given harmonic structure, then you know it is not abstract, it is a fugue. If it's a decent fugue, you can hear variation and development. If it's a Bach fugue, you can hear reharmonization, secondary themes, transposition, tension and relaxation all arranged in a way that flows very much like a narrative. You can learn to recognize these components, just as surely as you can learn to recognize a cow, or even distinguish one breed of cow from another.
Later, after some thought, a Guinness, and some fish and chips:
I'm afraid I must reject the macro-definition of "abstract art" as "non-representational." All art represents something,
for crying out loud, whether it's a wheelbarrow, or the King of France, or your fear of aging, or your frustration with being an alcoholic, or the joy of getting your first commission from a major orchestra. Just because a work of art represents something we can't see or touch doesn't mean it is "non-representational." Then again, there's at least a sense in which every work of art exists unto itself. Prints of Persistence of Memory
and Starry Night
are on my wall right now, not just because they represent the sky or melting watches or the ravages of time, but because I have always appreciated the works themselves. One can enjoy Pictures at an Exhibition
without having seen any of the drawings that inspired it ... and in fact, the drawings look pretty drab next to the music. So even a representational work of art also functions non-representationally. Some poets are notably sensitive about this, and insist that their work ought to be appreciated for what it is
rather than what it stands for.
We might find a way forward by refining the general definition somewhat, and proposing that the degree of abstraction in a work of art corresponds to the degree to which it represents abstract concepts — i.e., anything beyond the five senses. In visual art, almost every work of quality will have a measure of abstraction, since even photorealistic images can function as symbols for abstract concepts. So the Dali and Van Gogh prints on my wall are partially abstract, whereas the Yeats print upstairs is entirely abstract. Each of these paintings is both representational and non-representational in the senses described in the previous paragraph. What makes them more or less abstract is WHAT they represent. In this sense, a Bach fugue can represent God's glory or his ordered and harmonious creation, follow a set of rules, have a "narrative" structure, and still be at least somewhat "abstract," since what it represents is beyond the senses. Note that form and harmony and theme and all that are NOT beyond the senses, so there's still room for quite a spectrum of abstraction within music. Some of John Cage's work would be a lot more abstract than Bach's, just as Pollock or Rothko would be more abstract than Sargent or Gainsborough.
Speaking of Cage, by this definition his famous 4'33"
is both entirely non-representational and entirely non-abstract. It was intended to be "performed" outdoors in a wooded setting, and the audience was expected to spend the duration of the "composition" listening to whatever natural sounds might be going on in the environment -- birds singing, elk bugling, what have ya. Instead of representing those things, the work lets you listen to the things themselves. If the work is about anything, it's about whatever you can hear when you are silent, and that's not an abstraction.
And, since I now appear to be talking to myself: Tony pointed out that the term "narrative," when applied to the way a composer develops a theme, is merely analogous to the way we usually understand the term. It occurs to me that we make a similar analogy when we say a painting has "narrative," or even when we say a film has "narrative" (unless the film has an annoying voice-over narration). We are merely more accustomed to making these latter analogies.
Edited by mrmando, 04 October 2006 - 01:05 AM.