Adding Purpose to Abstract Art

The concept of symbolism in religious paintings during the Renaissance has always amazed me — layers and layers of metaphors depicting biblical scenes with scientific and philosophical advancements, I would argue, were a godsend. Meaning in art makes the art have a purpose in its existence. As a firm believer of free speech, art for art’s sake is fine but it isn’t for me in the sense that something can just be looked at.

Hidden messages in paintings, almost esoteric, were like a game during my art history classes. My favorite being the cloak encasing God in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. It’s been theorized that the cloak is in the shape of a brain because Michelangelo was, against the church, studying the anatomy humans and included the brain in this painting. It raises a question — what’s Michelangelo trying to say putting God inside the brain?

But I must admit that representational art is also my least favorite form of art. Although as a history-buff I enjoy the recording of ancient times in representational means, once the photograph was invented, it became a matter of skill rather than purpose. Do I think recreating what’s in front of you onto a flat surface is obsolete? No, but I think it’s a matter of skill to try and achieve such a feat; the best place to use such skill is when beginning to learn art — drawing what’s in front of you is a 101 class, drawing from the mind is more advanced.

When I say drawing from the mind I don’t mean trying to draw, let’s say a leopard, from memory rather than from one in front of you. I mean more like drawing the essence, the idea of a leopard. The location of the leopard is arbitrary compared to what is being depicted on the canvas. Unless, of course, the location serves a purpose to the why of the reason it is being depicted in the way it is.

It might be fair to say I enjoy abstract art, instead, because it can be nonobjective, however, abstraction can be useless without meaning or purpose just the same. So far what I’ve seen, most abstract art has to be used as teaching examples to give them purpose. Art teachers enjoy displaying Pablo Picasso’s work when talking about the elements but that’s as far as it goes, generally. Because I ask less of what’s being depicted and more of why’s it being depicted, enjoying these kinds of works is difficult me.

There’s much enjoyment in abstract art, geometric abstraction, to be specific. One of my first truly religious experiences with non-objective art was when I discovered Kazimir Malevich’s, suprematism painting, White on White. The painting is a white square tilted and off-center on a white canvas. Malevich’s philosophy was that pure forms and colors held true feelings that could be depicted.

At the time I was also learning about the greatest art school, The Bauhaus in Germany. I’ve written and rewritten posts about this amazing school and I’ll continue to write and rewrite them because of how influential their ideas are on me. One of their many legacies was that form follows function. Those three words alone can be unpacked in a later post but in short: Form follows function means the way something looks (the materials used, the way it works, the way exists, it’s shape, etc.) is determined by the way it is meant to be used.

As a consequence of being a follower of this philosophy, everything I do, create, see, say…every decision I’ve had to make or decisions someone else had to make I questioned why. I needed to know the purpose. Or maybe I just needed to know that there was a purpose. Intention and purpose help make good designs. Because of this, the beauty of Malevich’s supreme shapes wasn't entirely fulfilling.

Although I agree with the supremacy of pure shapes and color and execution of them following the principles of design, mere feelings weren’t enough for me. I want to be able to depict a scene using non-objective art. Esoteric and occult secrets could be hidden in simple circles and squares.

That is why I’ve been working on a new series of paintings. The idea is to illustrate Biblical scenes and themes using non-objective, geometric abstraction. I want to take Malevich’s theory further into incorporating recognizable symbolism into pure forms and colors. I will use basic design principles and composition decisions to illustrate these religious ideas into the modern, abstract world. The unconventionality of abstraction as a means to describe real-world things will be aided by using universally understood visual communication.

Defining Art & Design

There’s a thin line between art and design along with both terms carrying a subjectivity to their meaning. I sought out to use those terms as classifications to distinguish different kinds of art and design so giving them definitions was the first step. Having them distinguished can help when studying, critiquing and/or using an item made by humans. I say “made by humans” because the kind of objects that can be distinguished between these categories are intentionally conscious, human-made things of any scale.

The first problem I came across was what do I call a finished design project? We use the term ‘design’ to mean a process of planning. Once the design is finished we call it whatever the design is, (e.g. a building, a car, a backpack) they aren’t called design pieces the way a finished art project is called an art piece. I settled on calling a general finished design a product. Having a term for a finished design helps to not confuse when I say design as a verb and a noun.

A design is a product made up of conscious decisions created to achieve a reaction or an understanding from an audience. Although sometimes a design choice can come about as an accident, majority of the time things are planned out using the design process. Anything and everything created or invented by humans is considered to be a product of design.

The purpose of a finished product is determined at the beginning of the design process, it is the reason to design the product. This reason is the answer to a problem. Once the product is finalized it can be critiqued as a good or bad design depending on how well it answers the problem.

The Design Process

  1. Identify the problem: identifying the problem, obstacle or question is important in order to give the design a goal and/or purpose.

  2. Research: looking up how things were done previously, alternate designs and learning how something is made can help make some design decisions.

  3. Create solutions: planning, sketching, measuring etc. - figure out some design solutions and understand why these decisions were made.

  4. Build, test and improve prototypes: create mock trials to see how the product will exist; notice any problems and fix the prototype until it’s exactly how it’s meant to be.

  5. Original, mass production: depending what the final product is, this step is about deciding on only having one product or mass producing it.

  • After finalization, the design can be judged as good or bad design by how well it answered the problem or question in step one.

There are two kinds of art: Expression and Appreciation Art. When a product’s main function is to entice the senses for aesthetic purposes or for expression only, the product is an example of Expression art. This also includes art that tries to communicate something to the audience such as a depiction of hell. Appreciation art can be anything created by humans or nature. Most commonly referred to as The Art of _______. This kind of art can be anything: The art of cars, the art of running, the art of flowers, etc.

Depicted:  Sign, 1925 — Wassily Kandinsky at LACMA.  This is an example of expression art.  Tony Flores .

Depicted: Sign, 1925 — Wassily Kandinsky at LACMA. This is an example of expression art. Tony Flores.

Expression art is used for decorative purposes, mainly, and can be any form of art (painting, sculpting, dance, etc.). It can also have a meaning meant to communicate something to the viewer such as a criticism on politics or story-telling. It is from the idea that the artist is trying to express themselves, or express something out into the world, putting intangible ideas or truths into 2D or 3D.

Appreciation art comes from the idea that art is beauty, anything can be art since anything can have beauty. It’s from the appreciation of anything and everything in the world. The reason for having the distinction is because designs can be appreciated art.

Although both design and expression art need conscious decision making to create something, it’s the intention of the creator’s final product use that determines which category it belongs in.

For example, a painting has many uses and can be profitable either way it’s used. A painting meant to be hung on a wall or placed in a frame to be looked at as decoration, with no utility use, is expression art. If the painting was made to be used as a book cover, it is a design.

Since multiple copies can be created of some products and expression art pieces, it’s the individual product that determines its label. Let’s say a foot-high statue was 3D printed to be used as a decorative piece in a vestibule, this is an expression art piece. Now a second statue was printed, exactly the same but is instead used as a paperweight, it is now a design. Same product, but different uses. It is also possible for an expression art piece to become a product and vice versa. Both designs and expression art pieces can be appreciation art.

The importance of having these three distinctions is to aid in forming strong opinions and intelligible criticisms. The best way to critique something is by knowing its process of creation, the creator’s intention  of use/purpose and by rating the product on skill and technique.

It’s an instinct of mine to try and organize anything I see — the designer part of me tries to organize it strategically. I felt the need to organize these as categories so that it’s easier when I begin discussing other art pieces and design products. If they help anyone else then by all means, feel free to use them.