Learning to appreciate the mystery of the abstract

A student tries to find meaning in the art his classmates find unappealing.


enrolled in a course called “Urban Affairs: Art in the City” at the beginning of my sophomore year.  The course was worth two credits, and I had heard that the professor was in the business of handing out easy A’s.

I settled into the class with the intention of lounging and watching time pass, like the rest of my classmates. The format of the course was repetitive and simple. Each week, we’d cover some concept of art through film, a guest speaker or another medium. And the next week, we’d be responsible for writing a short reaction to what we had covered in class, and each person would share a few comments.

Our semester kicked off with a discussion of Leo Tolstoy’s book, “What is Art?” which seeks to identify the underlying purpose of art. Reading a summary of the book captivated me, so I decided to read some excerpts of Tolstoy’s work for myself after class.

A particular line struck me. It read, “People who consider the aim of art to be pleasure cannot realize its true meaning and purpose.”

By the third week of class, we started learning about abstract art. My professor told us about the exorbitant sums of money offered for various abstract artworks. He asked us for our thoughts: Would we pay millions of dollars for these pieces if our resources allowed?

As I looked around the class, I saw that my peers were unimpressed — one particular student appeared heavy with his disdain for the idea of abstract art in general. And no one really cared to object to his comments of disapproval. The political science major in me tried to offer the abstract pieces some much-needed defense, but my words didn’t reflect what I truly thought.

I couldn’t blame anyone for being disinterested. It seemed ridiculous to pay that much for seemingly vague scribbles and brushstrokes.

But I still had a summary paper to write, so with the help of the internet, I explored the world of abstract art on a deeper level than we had in class. Continuing on the theme of expensive transactions, I quickly found a piece called “Untitled (Yellow and Blue)” by artist Mark Rothko, which sold for $46.5 million in 2015.

The painting was described as “a glowing aurora of shimmering color and light” by the auction house. But what I saw did not match that description. The work consisted of the colors yellow and blue, as one would expect, painted somewhat neatly on an eight-foot canvas.

Immediately, I started looking for a justification for the absurdity of the selling price. I thought to myself, “What hidden beauty lies here? There must be some deeper meaning.”

I sat there thinking, entranced by the artwork. The hues of yellow and blue gave no response to my question, but they hypnotized me. The art had entered my mind, and I was now fully engaged. After that, I sifted through several different abstract pieces, and each time I lingered longer than just a peek. I didn’t know what I was looking for in the art: beauty or absurdity. But I kept looking anyway.

Inwardly, I scoffed at the shoddy portrayals before me. I wondered what Michelangelo would say if someone showed him modern abstract artworks. I wondered how “Untitled (Yellow and Blue)” would look next to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

But I realized the lack of meaning I found in the abstract artworks drove me to dig deeper and search harder. It felt like a fruitless quest, but I persevered.

I heard the words of Tolstoy in the back of my mind, and I realized again that maybe art really wasn’t all about my own sense of pleasure. This abstract art may never live up to my ideas of beauty, but instead maybe it has fulfilled its purpose just by turning me into a silent, intent observer. And thanks to my class, I’ve learned that art doesn’t have to be liked or appreciated by everyone to have meaning.

One of these days I think I’ll purchase an abstract work of art — maybe a copy, maybe an original. I may not find it pretty or complex, but I’ll buy it, only to look at it and have others look too.

But something tells me I’m going to spend a lot less than $46.5 million for it.

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