Abstract Art: A Note for the Uninitiated

Axis #5 (1936), by Herbert Read, p. 3.

The experience which this exhibition of abstract art is going to give you is not an unfamiliar one. If you are a sensitive person–and presumably none but those who like art of some kind will take the trouble to visit such an exhibition–there must have been many occasions in your life when you have seen, perhaps a broken column in the sunlight, perhaps the façade of a house you have passed a thousand times but which you suddenly see to be subtly “right,” perhaps one of those stones which peasants in various parts of the world pick up and keep because something in the shape “holds” them.

On all such occasions you are experiencing the kind of emotion which abstract art is intended to give you. You may argue that on occasions such as I have cited there are predisposing circumstances: the aura of antiquity round the broken column, the “period charm” of the house, the primitive instinct which guided the peasant in his choice. But art never exists in an emotional vacuum. We approach a work of art charged with all manner of habitual modes of thought and feeling, and it is only through the thicket of our prejudices that the æsthetic light can shine.

Strongest of all nowadays in the prejudice that a work of art must tell a story–a prejudice contradicted every time you look at a fine building with admiration. Unconsciously you are assuming that of all the plastic arts these two, painting and sculpture, should be segregated and confined to the business of telling a story. You deliberately ignore the illogicality of such a disintegration of the arts and of æesthetic sensibility. But art is one, and æsthetic sensibility is one–a mode of apprehension as old as mankind; and the only difficult is the operative one–the difficulty of allowing an instinct to have expression in a world of intellectual pride.

Abstract art is the art of pure form, whose appeal you readily admit in the arts of music and architecture. To extend this concept of pure form to the arts of painting and sculpture is surely a most natural and justifiable step. Thereby we deprive those arts of the adventitious aids of a story of a message, aids which music and architecture only resort to in their weakest moments; and undoubtedly the result is more “difficult.” But so long as you do not object to the difficulty of Bach or of Palladio, you have no right to object to the difficulty of Brancusi or Mondrian.

Finally, abstract art is not displayed in any sectarian spirit. It emerged into consciousness early in this century and since then it has developed steadily and unremittingly. It is not a revolutionary stunt, not a “movement” in any political sense. It does not set out to destroy all other kinds of painting and sculpture, or to win for itself the fickle prize of popularity. It can only hope to appeal to the Happy Few–to those who would like to have about them picture and sculpture which bear some sympathetic relation to the qualities they admire in the other arts: harmonies of form and colour which are not beautiful relatively, but always naturally and absolutely, producing, in their own proper nature , their proper pleasures–a definition of this kind of art which is not mine, but Plato’s.