OPINION: Abstract art and realism are valid and important forms of visual expression

A drawing of abstract and realism artwork.
(Crystal Yang • The Student Life)

Most people, artists or not, have likely encountered stereotypes about visual art. I’ve often heard people comment that abstract art requires no talent or that realism doesn’t require creativity. I am no different — I used to hold a narrow perspective on art, defining “good” art through only limited constraints such as technical skill level and use of detail. I’ve certainly expressed disdain for certain acclaimed artists who I judged as having put in little work or effort to their pieces. However, as I’ve come to realize, visual art contains a broad spectrum of methods, skill sets and mediums. Discounting an art style only reinforces stereotypes that harm the art community.

There is no one way to draw a person, sculpt a bust or paint a fruit basket. Likewise, there should be no art style that trumps another. Unfortunately, many people only judge artwork based on the perceived level of skill required to create them or according to how appealing (or unappealing) they are to the eye. While art is subjective and it’s OK to have an opinion about an artwork or art style, it’s narrow-minded to invalidate a style or assume that it reflects poorly on an artist’s abilities or efforts.

I used to judge artwork like that. I believed that realism was the art form that trumped all other art forms, because I thought it required the most skill, precision and time. I limited my perceptions of what art is, viewing it only as being accurate renderings of real life instead of a flexible method of expression.

In fact, the only thing that changed my mind was Pablo Picasso. I used to look down on artists who dabbled in abstract art styles, and I resented Picasso for being famous the same way I did Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko or Piet Mondrian. Those artists didn’t seem to obey the laws of nature, twisting things out of proportion and drawing like children. However, when I discovered Picasso’s early artwork — realistic paintings he created in his younger days — my entire view of art changed. 

While Picasso’s later artwork didn’t visibly require much technique or precision, he was clearly a capable artist. I realized that if Picasso decided to leave realism and turn to abstract art, leaving behind artwork that highlighted his technical abilities for strange and conceptual art, then maybe realism wasn’t a higher art form after all. I began to consider other art styles without the same thinly veiled superiority I’d once had.

I have mostly only heard people hold contempt for abstract or realistic art styles, despite these two respectable styles’ being just as flexible and expressive as other styles, albeit in different ways. 

Stereotyping modern art as lacking expertise, or realism as lacking meaning, creates the notion that artists only enter those arenas because they themselves lack expertise or the depth to create meaningful works. After all, I need only be reminded of my own past scorn for Picasso to remember that abstract art does not indicate an absence of skill. These notions are demeaning and divide artists into positions of inferiority and superiority, which is especially harmful because those stereotypes are simply not true. 

For starters, abstract art allows both its artist and its audience the unique freedom to explore and create personal meaning. Although it may seem simple to splatter paint against a canvas or draw geometric patterns, abstract art is often incredibly open to interpretation. While an abstract artist may superficially take less time or need less technical ability than artists in other arenas, their contributions to the art world are just as necessary and valid. Their art operates hand in hand with imagination in ways that many art styles cannot.

For example, one of my favorite abstract artists at the moment is Callen Schaub. He creates paintings by swinging and rotating buckets of paint over canvases, which is quite unconventional compared to the more common method of painting with a brush. He’s received a lot of hate on social media for his works, and many people degrade him for making money off artwork that seemingly lacks technical skill. 

However, I, as well as his thousands of other followers, love his artwork because it is aesthetically appealing. While his art may not have intense backgrounds or details that demand overwhelming amounts of time and effort, each one of his paintings is still beautiful. 

Art does not exist for any concrete or universal reason, so it is unreasonable to demand that all artwork have clear or concrete meaning behind their creation. Assuming that abstract art is invalid because it does not depict an explicit scene or meaning is to incorrectly assume that art is no longer about expression but has strict rules and regulations.

In contrast, realism, especially hyperrealism, receives a lot of criticism for its apparent inflexibility. I have heard many people opine that while realistic art requires a lot of technical ability, it also lacks in creativity, depth and taste. While I agree that realism doesn’t leave much room for interpretation or exploration and relies on skill rather than imagination, it is still equally as valid as other art styles. 

Even though realism lacks strength in areas that other art styles have, it also requires strength in areas that other styles lack. It is lazy and inconsiderate to pretend that art cannot have different purposes or require varying levels of expertise in different emotional and artistic arenas. 

Besides, realism does not necessarily mean that the artist must exclude creativity from their process, just as abstract art does not mean that the artist mustn’t do anything that requires technical ability. 

There are several ways to evoke emotion and convey meaning through realism, even if the subjects depicted are visually accurate to how they would appear in real life. While realism is stylistically strict because it must mirror real life, artists still possess the freedom to choose what they want to depict. A soulful gaze, tragic scene or family portrait can move its audience just as much as nonrepresentational artwork can.

Ultimately, there is no one way to do art the right way. There is no right way to do art at all. Pretending like there are superior and inferior forms of art is not only foolish but also harmful for artists and their audiences by limiting and regulating expression.

So upon a future encounter with an abstract or realistic artwork, try to respect each style for its individual areas of strength instead of denouncing it for what it lacks. While it is OK to dislike an artwork or art style because of personal preference or taste, it is important to remember that all visual art styles, including abstract art and realism, are equally necessary and valid modes of expression. Not only do these two styles open up vast possibilities for the art world, but they also help their audiences see things in new and different ways.

Jadyn Lee SC ’24 is from Monterey Park, California. She loves sculpture and wants to learn how to carve soap.

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