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Ask a Redbird Scholar: Why is abstract art relevant?

This is a closeup from green and red oil painting on linen canvas made with high quality artist paints and tools. Showing paintbrush strokes and traces from palette knives. Photographed in daylight with Canon 5D Mark II and Sigma 50mm macro lens. Suitable as backgrounds, wallpaper or decorative art. Created by me.

Why is abstract art important and relevant? My kids could do that. I don’t get it.
—Aimee Beam, Bloomington

Most painters begin their artistic training through observational skill development—making a painting of a tree to look like the tree that is being observed. However, individual artists determine which art projects are relevant to their mode of working and their way of interacting with the world, whether painting a self-portrait, preparing an ephemeral meal for friends, stacking a pile of rocks, or creating an abstract painting. Essentially, artists want to be the ones to determine what they do, what they make.

School of Art Director and Professor Michael Wille

School of Art Director and Professor Michael Wille

Abstract painting has only been around for the past 100 years or so. Early on, abstract painting was somewhat rebellious; it was a way to counter the traditions of the medium. If paint had been used only as a device to empirically represent a thing, place, person, etc. throughout history, a new generation of painters sought to change history and ask paint to perform a different task.

Abstract painting became a new mode of working that allowed an artist to expand what paint could do. Instead of Dutch painter Frans Hals showing off his immense talents by painting a ruff collar, painters like Wassily Kandinsky and Stuart Davis opted to use color and composition as tools to make abstract paintings.

Over the past century, artists continue to advance the conversation within the medium of painting by both deepening painting’s dialogue but also tweaking the conversation to meet the needs of each new generation of thinkers and makers.

In the end, I hope that children want to make art. I hope our society can foster each young person’s desire to make things with their hands, and to do so in a way that brings them joy and satisfaction. Rather than needing an audience to determine the cultural value of a piece of art, I want each artist to trust their own hunches, explore one’s own unique goals, and maintain an atmosphere of curiosity and joy when making.

Whether it’s through abstract painting or not, I like living in a world where people want to create things that matter to them.

Michael Wille, director and professor, School of Art

Our top faculty experts answer questions from the Illinois State University community in the “Ask a Redbird Scholar” section. To submit a question, email Kevin Bersett at kberse@IllinoisState.edu or tweet it to @ISUResearch. Chosen questions and answers appear in each issue of Illinois State’s new research magazine, the Redbird Scholar. To read other “Ask a Redbird Scholar” posts, visit IllinoisState.edu/RedbirdScholar.

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Realism is prose; prose is fallen poetry. Abstraction is poetry; poetry is fallen music.

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