Preliminary Thoughts On Abstraction

Abstraction is not scary. Audiences with limited exposure to the abstract generally respond with dismissal or even disgust upon hearing Schoenberg or seeing a Pollock for the first time. We’ll save the historically contextual discussion for another time. Suffice it for now to say that artists should never dismiss something as “fringe” or “too modern” when it’s a hundred years old and has been imitated countless times. Even now though, there can be resistance from the community of artists when one of us does something that rest of us do not expect.

Artists who resist the unexpected are artists who resist progress.

Let’s be clear about this: artists who resist the unexpected are artists who resist progress. This is more than the random happenstance of personal taste; it is, in point of fact, a failure of moral courage.

It is the duty of the artist to push the envelope. There are countless ways to reframe old ideas or to invent new ones. The old axioms that suggest at the impossibility or impracticality of novelty (“there’s nothing new under the sun”) are borne of ignorance, laziness, or worse. People who espouse these claims simply aren’t paying attention.

When an audience arrives at a concert (or an art gallery or theater or anywhere that art happens) and feels that they know what to expect, it is your duty a musician (or painter/dancer/actor/writer/etc.) to prove them wrong. We don’t do this out of spite; we don’t intend to be adversarial with our audience. We do it out of a desire to change the conversation, however subliminally or modestly. To come up with a way to do this that is as grandiose as the Rite of Spring is getting harder, to be sure, but new ideas are introduced with noticeable regularity to those of us who go out of our way to look for them.

We need to move the conversation forward. We can’t do that if we're not willing to engage with ideas that frustrate us.

I hope to use this platform as a means to shine some light on ideas that are worth considering, be they artistic, scientific, socio-political, or anything else. We need to move the conversation forward. We can’t do that if we're not willing to engage with ideas that frustrate us. Art that challenges us is what makes art a worthwhile cultural institution. For example, there's nothing wrong in principle with music that exists purely to entertain, but no one should seriously claim that their life was profoundly impacted by a tune from the hit factory populist establishment. The newest Transformers movie is not causing its audience to grapple with difficult questions about morality and beauty. However, the newest film from Darren Aronofsky probably is, and there is a non-equivalence here that simply cannot be ignored. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be making and watching Transformers movies, they’re great escapist fun and we need that too. But the relativism from some of the voices in this discussion that suggest that merely because it’s popular means that it’s significant is demonstrably silly. Alcohol is one of the most popular ways to alter consciousness in America, but it’s almost tautological to say “that guy is a wife beater and a drunk.” Meditation, while less popular, has practically zero instances of domestic violence associated with it. Popularity is impressive. It isn’t intrinsically valuable.

it’s important to encourage artists and audiences alike to explore ideas that make them uncomfortable.

As much fun as it might be to do so, I’m not going to call out musicians who I think are good or bad at this; I don’t think that’s productive. I think it’s important to encourage artists and audiences alike to explore ideas that make them uncomfortable. Art is generally not going to hurt you, and in this way it is the only practical “safe space” that exists in our culture for confronting the things that don’t make sense to us right away. If we can’t do it with art, we definitely can’t do it with politics or social issues. I’m not suggesting that art can save the world from some of the scenarios that it has suddenly become necessary to predict. I’m asserting that art is a means by which people can engage with the transformative and the transcendent on their own terms, and this will have an impact on the future which I think will be positive.

Written by Matt Smith