what pulls us in
In most forms of art, we rely on some sense of drama and emotion to pull us in--in reading a novel or watching a film, we expect the narrative to contain a central dilemma for the characters. Listening to a symphony, we follow the arc of the music through various contrasting but related movements. With poetry or song we often contemplate some aspect of the human experience via analogy and metaphor, creating thought- or emotion-provoking images.
A few days ago, caught up in a novel on CD on a very long car trip, I started to think about how this dynamic applies in visual art, especially in non-representational painting. How is the viewer drawn in when there is no imagery to create a narrative or set up a dramatic or otherwise evocative situation? What gives an abstract painting (even one that is quiet or minimalist) strength, character, emotion? Why do some abstract paintings seem to compel people to look and look--while others are passed over?
Obviously, this is very subjective territory. What I stare at for an hour, you may dismiss in two seconds. What one juror picks as Best of Show, another sends to the reject pile. Different strokes for different folks, even among paintings generally well-regarded.
Nevertheless, I believe that there is a merging of form and content in really good abstract painting that sets it apart in terms of clarity, strength and communication of feeling. Technical skill along with command of the formal elements of art (value, color, line, shape and composition) create visual tension and contrast. Meaningful content is the other component, with roots in intellect, memory, and emotion--both intuitively and consciously accessed.
In bringing all of this together, the artist convinces the viewer of an alternate reality worth examining. In the words of the famous abstract painter, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Abstract art places a new world, which on the surface has nothing to do with "reality", next to the "real" world.
This, then is what seems to be the engaging dynamic for the viewer--a glimpse into another way of seeing, imagining or thinking. The drama or tension that draws in the viewer arises from the contrast between this unique vision and our everyday ways of seeing and interacting with what is around us. What an enormous, lifelong challenge the abstract painter has in distilling and communicating an inner world in a way that allows others to enter in.