In the early 1970s John Berger and his colleagues reopened discussion about the relationship between what we see and what we know as being central to an understanding of the role of art in culture. In particular, the way we express our feelings pictorially is determined by what we believe. In the European Middle Ages the possibility of eternal damnation was a widely held belief, and Hell was depicted realistically. A picture of Hell formed in the mind of a medieval painter was reconstituted as a set of marks on a canvas or a church wall where it was composed of a well-defined arrangement of conventional elements. Although a highly personal figment of the artist's imagination, it would have been recognised by everyone as representing a tangible place. From this point of view there is no doubt that a picture can encapsulate the mindset of people in the past. Berger and his colleagues argued that no other kind of relic or text could offer such a direct testimony of belief across the ages. We can now see Hell as an irrational concept, which was communicated in examples of tonal painting, where colour is graded from the highest light to the deepest shades to depict material objects. Tonal painting is often described as 'true' painting. It is what the majority of the public demands as being familiar and comprehensible.
The opposite of tonal painting is 'abstract' or 'pure' painting. The choice of colours and their application to a two-dimensional surface with respect to position and texture, serves simultaneously a plastic and psychological purpose. Abstract Art does not try to imitate or express any external reality and is non-objective. Abstraction was introduced into serious art sometime in the early Eighteenth Century. It really got underway with Impressionism, which produced art devoid of any realistic, defined images. Impressionism aimed to depict nature in its truest form. The Impressionists were mostly interested in capturing changes in light throughout the day, from one season to another.
Abstract painting as an intellectual process was first defined by Kandinsky in his 1910 essay 'Concerning the spiritual in art'. He took the view that when an artist is turning an abstract idea into a picture in which material objects are more or less superfluous, real objects can be more or less omitted and replaced either by purely abstract forms or by 'objects' that have been completely abstracted from real forms. Always behind abstraction is the idea that abstract artists actually create forms that exist somewhere in the universe but on different scales. However, to an uninformed viewer an abstract work has to be taken and evaluated on its own merit as an arrangement of lines colours and textures. In the same year that he wrote 'Concerning the spiritual in art' Kandinsky, did his first abstract painting. Like many abstract artists, he saw himself as a spiritual as well as an aesthetic pioneer, feeling that abstraction was the best means available to artists for depicting an unseen realm of the mind. Without qualification he announced that the type of painting he envisioned would advance the new "spiritual epoch." In his book he describes the spiritual realm as a triangle in upward motion. At its apex stands a man whose vision points the way; within are artists, who are "prophets," providing "spiritual food."
In order to understand true painting, there are two points of reference. One is the dominant "realistic" reference. That is to say the painting is understood by relating it to the real world in some way. Its correspondence to a general standard of the nature of the material world allows a viewer to clearly identify the subject of the painting. The second point of reference is the internal design elements of the painting itself: lines, colours, mass, and so on. This second point of reference, however, is almost totally subsumed by the first. In contrast, in an abstract work of art there is no reference to the real phenomenal world; the standard of phenomenal reality has been abandoned. All that is left for a viewer to visually understand the painting is the second point of reference: the internal design elements of the painting itself that is, line, colour, shapes etc.
The majority view is that architecture and music are naturally admitted to be abstract arts, not required to 'represent' something, and subject to their own laws, whereas poetry, painting and sculpture are considered arts of representation. Ought this traditional distinction to be maintained or, aesthetics being universal, can all arts claim the same inherent autonomy as music and architecture? It does seem that abstract art was born from the very desire to emulate music and architecture, with a freedom and discipline of its own. Abstractors like Kandinsky, with his suggestions of music, and Mondrian, with his ideal of architecture, demonstrate the limitations and, at the same time, the achievement of abstract art.
It is useful to compare abstract art to music. Just as a tune is an arrangement of sounds in time, with no material meaning, so an abstract picture is an arrangement of shapes and colours in a flat plane. These pictures can be formal explorations of the principles of composition, where the artist is trying to get selected components to look 'right', just as one might when furnishing a room or arranging a spray of flowers. Abstract art can also express deep emotion. Often this is communicated by 'mark making' - rough or energetic strokes that reveal the physical energy used in their making; faint traces of colour evoke an ethereal mood.
In terms of the mindset of their makers, abstract pictures are sophisticated doodles. In their creation we have to distinguish between form in a physical sense and form in an aesthetical sense. The latter is the form of the work as a thoughtful creation of an attentive mind. Colour and form develop one through the other into a reciprocal compensatory relationship comparable to harmony and counterpoint in music, or direct brain-to-brain improvisation in jazz. Sound energy of music leaves player to enter the ear of the receiver. The energy put into a painting enters the mind as a clutch of different wavelengths of light. In the real world nature reflects ever changing patterns of light, and in a picture the artist creates streaks of light in fields and patches. A painter composes by manipulating light reflected from the picture surface.
Painting is always intuitively conditioned by the intellectual feedback from the flow of light from canvas to eye, and from the eye, via a sensitive, discerning and critical mind to an image in brain cells. The whole process has been described by the abstract teacher/artist Hans Hofmann as " a process of metabolism whereby colour transubstantiates into vital forces that become the real sources of painterly life". An abstract work of art provides a material microcosm that can please the viewer in terms of its novel arrangements of lines, colours and textures. These same arrangements can also provide doors and windows for the mind to add a personal meaning to the picture, which then becomes a storyboard for human communication. In this context we come pretty close to Leonardo Da Vinci's advice to painters that they should contemplate an old wall, firing their imagination on the basis of a shapeless surface. He said: "When you look at patches of colour on walls or walls made out of different sorts of stones, and you have to imagine a scene in front of you, you will see different landscapes with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, great valleys and groups of hills. You will also detect battles and rapidly moving figures, strange faces and looks, exotic costumes and an infinite variety of things to which you will be able to assign distinct and well-formed shapes" Discovering shapes in the glowing coals of a domestic fire exemplify the same response to abstract arrangements of materials and the energy the emit.
It has actually been discovered scientifically that famous works of abstract art achieve popularity, by using shapes that resonate with neural mechanisms in the brain that are linked to visual information. Humans make aesthetic judgements about shapes and forms quickly and easily, preferring certain shapes to others, even in the absence of any narrative. Dr Richard Latto from Liverpool University's Psychology department has discovered that these shapes resonate with the processing properties of the human visual system, which is responsible for analysing what we have seen. Humans inherit a basic visual system through the natural selection of an eye-to-brain system that provides very selective information about the world around us. It has evolved to provide only the information that we need to survive - for example, we cannot see most electromagnetic radiation or follow the leg movement of a galloping horse. In this way, evolution had given the viewer of an abstract work some genetically determined physiological mechanisms enabling responses to be made to certain shapes, colours and forms arranged in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. The viewer uses their own brain to monitor the effect. Certain arrangements of horizontal and vertical lines are popular because they resonate with our visual systems, which have been tuned by evolution and experience to respond particularly to these biologically and socially important visual stimuli in landscapes. As with other adaptive behaviours, we have evolved a mechanism to encourage us to concentrate on these features by rewarding ourselves with good feelings.
In Latto's view: "Artists were experimenting with abstract shapes long before scientists began analysing our nature of perception. Through observation or trial-and-error, artists have been identifying these aesthetic primitives - critical shapes and arrangements - and have indirectly defined the nature of our visual processes. In purely abstract painting, as with much music, form is all we have. Popular works have shown that essentially we like looking at what we are good at seeing."
Functional specialization in biology refers to the fit between form and function that is characteristic of biological adaptations to environment. For morphological adaptations like fins or wings, the meaning of "form" is clear. In the case of cognitive mechanisms, form refers to information-processing features of the mechanism. These can be thought of as the mechanism's design features (where "design" refers not to design by an intelligent agent, but by evolutionary processes). Typically, a list of a mechanism's design features would include a specification of the kinds of inputs the mechanism accepts, and the operations that it performs on those inputs. Of necessity, all mechanisms will operate on information only of a particular format. In this respect there are two aspects to viewing art: nativistic perception which is the synchronicity of eye and brain that transforms electromagnetic energy emanating from the picture's surface into neuro-chemical codes. This is hard-wired into the brain/eye sensory-cognitive system. The second aspect is directed perception, which incorporates personal history and knowledge of the entire set of our expectations and past experiences. Both forms of perception are part of the appreciation of abstract art, and both are products of the evolution of the conscious brain over hundreds of thousands of years.