abstract and conceptual

It is only in the last 300 years that fine art has been differentiated from craft, decorative arts and folk arts. Before that, art was accepted as illustration, or inspiration, homage and religious art. And as fine art became a specific area of endeavor, artists and art lovers gave ever increasing importance to art for art’s sake. In the last fifty years, the definition of art became increasingly more open and flexible. At the same time, philosophers and thinkers tried to define the nature of the work, first as an aesthetic occupation, and later as an intellectual pursuit. And those of us who study art, are very aware of a continuous conversation going on between artists, as each generation responds and paraphrases some of the great works from earlier generations.

houses, from a series by Yehoshua Eliraz

The 19th century brought a flowering of abstraction in art. To begin with, abstractions referred to some form of representation of nature. Personally, I find abstraction most interesting when it refers to something known, relating to forms, lines, or narratives which relate to a previous knowledge or understanding. A radical example of such abstraction, is ‘cubism’ which was developed by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. But there are many examples of abstraction, beginning with the departure from a strictly representational work of art by the emphasis of some aspect of the visual experience, all the way to abstract expressionism (which first appeared after WWII), in which the painting becomes more a fantasy than a representation of anything known in nature.


This in turn brings us close again to decoration, for the only way to judge such works is by way of the aesthetic experience. And in some cases, the desire of the artist to convey a message of anarchism, rebellion, or a nihilistic mood, results in works that are decidedly unaesthetic. And so, as art itself becomes more free, we find that we have less limitations, and what matters more and more is taste. Today, when visiting exhibitions, the art lover finds himself increasingly challenged by works that are hard to understand and occasionally, not even aesthetically pleasing. Why is this happening? For one thing, the artist himself feels challenged to provide something new in order to claim some sort of worth that is not a copy of what has been seen before.


Conceptual art first took the stage with the work of Marcel Duchamp, who submitted a urinal to an independent artists’ exhibition in the early 20th century, signing the object with a pseudonym, and giving it a name, ‘Fountain’. Since then, the genre has continued to grow and develop, and there are many examples of very sophisticated conceptual art alongside of endless statements that are laconic and obscure. Conceptual art is often not an aesthetic experience, but a statement which appeals to the thought processes and the logic of the observer. These works are frequently called installations. Occasionally they present the viewer with a paradox of some sort, or an experience of transcendence, in which the viewer must deal with something that exists in two separate worlds or two or more different media.


But what is the purpose of these works? Actually, the artist may legitimately choose to speak to himself. He does not need the approval of other artists, critics, or art lovers, But having noticed the obsession of bloggers with statistics concerning their blogs, I would guess that many artists do aspire to communicate with others… and the more, the better. I believe that truly successful art, connects to some sort of universal thought or experience. And in doing so, the work transcends the personal world of the artist, and the viewer is able to relate to the art, as if recognizing something from his own personal world. It is the experience of ‘somebody has been reading my letters’. My personal taste is very different when it comes to what I choose to produce, and what I enjoy reading or viewing by others. But I always enjoy hearing a good story, whether it be in poem, painting, or photograph. And I believe that when you’ve produced a work of art, it is best to let it speak for itself. Let others explain it. You’ve already done it. But artists often try to explain their work.

putting himself in a frame, Yehoshua

The work shown here is the work of the Israeli artist, Yehoshuah Eliraz. His work has been shown in exhibitions and museums. And he has taught art for years. I can always come up with an explanation for his work… but I am usually left with certain open questions as well.


58 responses to “abstract and conceptual

  1. Thank you.I like this post…it is a very interesting topic.I shall probably put my views later.It just reminded me of a poem I wrote about my sister and her baby daughter which was very personal and yet it got far more comments than my other less personal writing.As if in the depths of our hearts we are most ourselves and yet more in contact with the hearts of others.The most personal may be the most universal.I like the art you feature above….complex and intriguing.But much conceptual art does not speak to me…to be honest I have not seen much so I should not say that…
    it’s too easy to make jokes about it.
    Well.I put more than I intended but it is fascinating

    • I believe that what you speak of is a very deep connection between people… people who usually don’t know one another, but find their own thoughts and feelings in the work of art. Of course, not every piece of art speaks to others in that way. And almost never does one piece of art speak to everyone. It is a fine talent that can tap into that universal understanding. Thank you for your comment, Kathryn

  2. It was interesting, I enjoyed. I am impressed. Thank you dear Shimon, have a nice weekend, love, nia

  3. Being an artist myself Shimon, I found this really interesting.
    It never fails to astonish me how so many people like so many different types of art. Whenever I have an exhibition, I rarely attend them but always leave a book for people to leave comments. I find if I’m not around people feel able to express themselves so much more freely.
    Some of the comments I have read have reduced me to tears as often a particular painting has related to something happening or to something that has happened in people’s lives, making the impact more powerful.xxxxx

    • I know what your speaking about, Dina. What has surprised me many times, is what people choose from my work. I’m not always able to guess what a person will like or not like. I might think that some work was a great success, but it doesn’t necessarily affect others in the same way. And sometimes, the atmosphere at an exhibition, is a little hard to take for an artist. I think I can understand why you choose not to be there yourself. Though I’ve always felt free to write whatever I wanted in the book, whether the artist was there or not.

  4. I think that one should separate the need to create with one’s ego, because they’re never separate. One’s ego, even if he is a successful artist and even if he produces what he/she feels, may need the recognition, and yet, another artist may be the kind that the “creation” was fulfilling as an internal act. Either way, the piece of art may be meaningful, beautiful or not.
    Two Israeli singers who write their own songs, had a complete different reaction to “needing approval”. Shlomo Artzi said that the love he gets from his audience is never enough. Shalom Chanoch said that he didn’t need it anymore. So there’s art, and then there’s ego.
    You don’t need awards and yet others do.

    • Having been around artists most of my life, I can testify that you do find a lot of ego in their company. But I agree with you, that it’s not necessarily connected. People are people, and some have great egos, and others are more modest. I have to say that I enjoy Shlomo Artzi very much. But I don’t know much about him personally. Thank you very much for your comment, Rachel.

  5. Thank you for this considered reflection and all the knowledge that has gone into it. What do you think is the meaning and place of beauty in art?

    • They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Much has been written about aesthetics, though. And I believe there is a consensus among most people regarding beauty, and that it elevates our spirit. But some find beauty where others see none. It’s an interesting question, Gill.

      • It’s something I’m concerned about, because there seems so little in much modern art – if something is ugly or gross (as seems to me) it may be ‘meaningful’ in some way to others but … is it just me who hopes for art to lift the spirit and give us glimpses of a beauty that speaks to us of something more, greater perhaps?

        • I think the big difference between modern art, and the classics, is that over time, the very best are remembered and celebrated, and the majority is filtered out by the lack of interest of the public. When we go to exhibitions today, we see pretty much everything, including a lot of trivial experiments… or the result of politics among gallery owners… We can still find great art occasionally. But that is usually the exception… much as it is with poetry or other creative efforts. I too look for art that lifts my spirits.

  6. I’ve never studied art, Shimon, so I appreciate your insight and the application it provides to our lives, whether we’re intentional or accidental artists ourselves. Thank you.

    • That’s a very interesting comment, Scott… on ‘accidental artists’. I think most philosophers would cast doubt on that possibility. Usually, it’s thought that an accident is not art. That it has to be a personal expression of the artist. But these days, the definitions are loosening up. Since you mentioned that you didn’t study art, you might find it interesting that in the study of art, the emphasis is on the tools and the method. Taste remains in the province of the individual, and art teachers don’t usually try to influence that aspect.

      • My response was personal, Shimon…and I’ve never considered myself to be an artist, but some people have suggested that photography is an art-form…and I make photographs of things that appeal to me…and some people have enjoyed them and have gone so far to describe esteemed elements of that art in some of my photos…so I would say that if I’m an artist with my photography, it’s happened by accident…not intentionally…. I’m not sure how a philosopher might or would respond to that. I understood that taste in art is in the individual’s realm…but wasn’t aware of the precise elements emphasized in the study of art…. Thank you….

        • Yes, identifying art can be difficult at times… more so today than it was a generation ago. The tools we use are not that important. But the intentions and the methodology are. There is a subtle difference between art and craft. And it is entirely possible for a person who never studied art and to be unaware of the fact that he is using traditional methods, to produce inspiring artwork. It is because of the word ‘accident’ that I took exception. Because most students and lovers of art would see random behavior or accidental beauty as the opposite of art. I hope I haven’t offended you with my remark.

          • No offence taken at all, Shimon…on the contrary, I appreciate your detailed response…it would be much easier, and enjoyable, too, to be able to have this conversation sitting beside one another where the words could flow and expand with immediate exchange and clarification when needed…but here we are, continents apart…. I had not considered the aspects of art and the accompanying philosophy that you’ve mentioned…thank you, truly, for sharing them. Compelling, as always, my friend.

  7. I agree that art can leave us with more questions than answers. I love a lot of different kinds of art, some simply because they’re soothing, but it’s the challenging ones that are most memorable, even if I don’t necessarily find them aesthetically pleasing.

    • I’m not usually attracted to art that is soothing. But often the aesthetically pleasing can also be challenging. Some images have stayed with me for twenty or thirty years… influencing me all that time. Thanks for the comment, Jordan.

  8. I too have mixed feelings about modern art. Quite often it’s still a case of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ tale and nobody dares to tell the truth about how we’re all being duped or taken for a ride.

    • in most cases, i agree with you. however, i’m not sure where and when or if ever, “truth” and “art” go hand in hand.

      • You raise another very interesting point in the appreciation of art. I would say that when the art does touch some universal thread in human awareness, it is ‘true’. Still, different people will see any work of art differently.

      • That’s also very true, although I was thinking more about aesthetics and truth. I love fantasy and the surreal work of Salvador Dali: the stuff of dreams and nightmares, but still aesthetically beautiful and magical.

    • I agree with you, Fatima, that there are many such cases. Because almost anyone can claim to be an artist. On the other hand, sometimes we’re just not ready for the work the artist is presenting. When I first went to an exhibition of Andy Warhol, I had that feeling… that I was looking at the Emperor’s new clothes. But over the years, I went back and studied his works a number of times. And eventually came to the conclusion that he had something of great quality to contribute. But even so, there are some of his works that I still can’t stand. He was experimental, and not all of his experiments were successful.

  9. Art is so subjective isn’t it. What one person absolutely loves another thinks it’s nothing special. I’ve learned that with my photography. I love all types of art, some more then others and as the saying goes “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Great post Shimon. You always make me stop and think.

    • Thank you very much, Edith. I used that saying myself, in answer to another comment here. But I don’t believe that beauty is a necessity in art. It adds something. We respond well to it. But there are works of art that disdain beauty; that choose to present discord. The message seems more compelling that the pleasure it offers us. Not everyone likes sweet wine, or sugar in their coffee.

  10. Hello Shimon,
    I like the athmosphere of your blog. It gives me the feeling to live in your neigbourhood.
    My wife is a sculptor and she makes abstract figurative bronze. When she is asked to explain her work she says that if she would be able to do so she woudn’t be a sculptor but a writer.
    Jacob Epstein when asked about his art said it was not intended to decorate, but a way to communicate with the next generation
    Willy from Antwerp, Belgium

    • Thank you very much for coming by Willy. I like the answer your wife gives to those who ask for explanations. I also avoid giving explanations regarding my own work. I like to think that the work speaks best for itself. As for the words of Epstein, He seems very ambitious. I feel that most of us are able to speak to only a small sample of our own generation, and that it is often very challenging to communicate to another generation. I have been blessed with quite a few grandchildren, and it seems to me that some of them are living in a different world from mine. I visited your blog, and found it very interesting. But unfortunately, I have great limitations in the languages that you write. I’m honored by your visit, and hope you will continue to feel at home here. aleichem hashalom.

      • Thanks for your reply.Sorry for my Belgian web address. Please find some more on this English address. My wife is Hélène Jacubowitz http://www.helenejacubowitz.be and let the images speak for themselves. You could have met them on Mamila last year…
        About Jacob Epstein, a former soldier of the Jewish legion in 1917, he was ambitious, he was even knighted to sir Jacob Epstein
        Shalom aleichem

        • Yes, your wife’s sculptures are very beautiful. I think I did see them in Mamila. Thank you for giving me the address to the English version. From what I’ve seen so far, we have our differences in viewing the subject matter, and in understanding the Hebrew texts, but I try to remain open minded when listening to other’s regarding such things.

  11. Wonderful post. Art, regardless if we like it or not, may be the ultimate expression of human creativity.

  12. Thank you, Shimon; I enjoyed this so much, and was intrigued by Mr. Eliraz’s art as well. Always a treat to read and benefit from your ideas. It brightened my day and has given me new perspectives to ponder…the definition of “art” and its function have intrigued me all my life. I welcome others’ views on these topics.

    • Very glad that you enjoyed the post, Catherine. You might find it interesting that in Hebrew, the word for art is very close to the word for faith, and composed of the same letters as the word Amen, which is also known to those outside our culture. The one letter that is added to art, changing it from amen, is a letter that is usually used to represent god, symbolically. For me, great art has always been like a prayer.

  13. Well said…
    To please or not to please.

  14. Interesting post. When I saw the first picture of the houses series, in my mind’s eye I saw it as full size – larger than me. It was shocking to see the later pictures of it, so small.

    Art is fascinating, especially the fluidity of its definition. My family and I were at a local art museum a month or so ago and there was this one room with a focus on fabrics. Right in the middle was a huge, towering stack of wool blankets. At first I scoffed at it – how could this be art?- but then I really looked. Each blanket was donated for the art project and most of them had a tag on it written in the previous owners handwriting telling a brief story of the blanket. It was incredible the stories and history, laid one on top of the other, in that simple stack of blankets.

    • Very interesting, shoes. I thought later that I should have shown some of his other works on the theme of houses. He did quite a bit in that area, and some are very different. They make the viewer think. Thank you very much for sharing with us the story of the blankets. On many occasions, I too have needed some time to realize the depths of an artistic work. And it is always worth while to study what the artist is offering us. Thank you for your comment.

  15. This is a very interesting post Shimon. I don’t pretend to understand art. I just know what I like and it’s always aesthetically pleasing in a very conventional sense I’m sure. That is my taste I suppose. Who am I to judge an unmade bed or a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde as having any less validity as a piece of art than a beautiful watercolour? I do know that the beautiful watercolour took natural talent plus years of training to produce it. I can enjoy the piece on an aesthetic level and appreciate the skill it took to produce it. I can’t do that with a lot of conceptual art.

    • Conceptual art has a much smaller audience than conventional aesthetic work. But as you say, it is a matter of taste. Sometimes, art can be an expression of criticism, or even antagonism. I too, find myself more drawn to beauty and aesthetics. I feel there is enough horror and sadness in this world without my seeking it out. But I’ve also learned to be sensitive to certain artworks that are not exactly my taste. Thank you very much for your comment, Chillbrook.

  16. What do you make of Christo Yavacheff, the artist who wraps things in plastic? islands, trees, piles of oil barrels, part of new york’s central park, a valley in the rocky mountains, sydney bay in australia. just giant sheets of plastic. usually pink or orange. yeah – very subjective.

    • When I first encountered Christo’s work, I thought it very interesting. But when he continued in the same vein, over and over again, I lost all interest. I think that what differentiates art from craft, is that the artist has to produce something that adds a new understanding with every work. For me, he’s become something like an Alzheimer patient, who tells the same joke every five minutes. But I know that others appreciate him much more than I do.

      • it seemed to me that giant pieces of pink plastic were more about getting attention than an expression of something. although “the gates” in new york seemed interesting, i must admit.

  17. Shimon – excellent post, as always.

    As a visceral viewer, either it reaches me or it doesn’t. I find tedious company in those that feel compelled to analyze each piece to the nth detail and assign meaning to every shade, tone or shape. I’m sure that some artists have created works with that level of detail, but those are typically technical pieces and rarely strike me as worth spending more than a glance on. The work has to have feeling.

    • I think there are as many different faces of art as there are mentalities to human beings. We all look for something that speaks to us. Some are bowled over by intricacy… others enjoy sentimentality… but there are those among us who wish to see an analogy of our own wonder at our existence in this world. Fortunately, there is some art for each and every one of us. Thanks for your comment, Bill.

  18. A thoughtful post, Shimon. I was reading through all the comments, but stopped at one of your replies where you said that the artist really only has to please himself/herself. That is so true, and after only a short time into my photography, I have come to that knowledge, and don’t look at my blog’s stat page anymore. In the beginning, I would check every few hours. I make and post my photos for myself, and if others like them too, that is icing on the cake.

    • You are most fortunate to have discovered that understanding early. It is a great mistake, in my opinion, to give much attention to popularity. Very few artists are able to support themselves by way of the profession, and those that are, aren’t always the best of the generation. But art itself has supported many of us, and given us joy and meaning in our lives.

  19. I loved seeing this art work from different directions, thank you.
    It’s interesting that something can look quite simple, but close up or from a different angle the complexity and intricate detail is obvious. And then if still simple – interesting how something simple can affect us..

    • Actually, after I posted these works, I realized that I should have shown other works of his on the same subject. They are very different, and thought provoking too. Perhaps one day, I will. Very glad you liked the works. Thank you for your comment, Annie.

  20. Reblogged this on katzideas and commented:
    A high quality essay with photographs about different kinds of Art.. a kind of meditation

  21. Great post Shimon, I love to read pople’s views on Art – especially modern art – it’s so subjective, which I guess is one of the reasons it’s so fascinating x

    • It is very subjective, Jen… but the very best is when it speaks to our heart… to those feelings that we think of as private… and there is that link between us and the artist. Thanks for the comment.

  22. Dear Shimon,
    I must admit this post stretched me beyond my familiar territory of understanding and appreciation of art. And yet I am so thankful to read this because it opened up a dimension of conceptual art that I had perhaps never taken the time to fully appreciate or then had dismissed its value from giving in to quick impressions.
    And yet the essence of learning is to try to put oneself in a place with no preconcieved ideas or given in to likes or dislikes but just to learn to observe and see a creative expression.
    I am more at home with printmaking on lino and rice paper and also water colours having dabbled with these mediums since I was a child. But I had never been exposed much to contemporary art. Perhaps it is time for me to visit the Modern Art Museum here in Helsinki this weekend with my family!
    I certainly gravitate towards the notion of what you wrote “I can always come up with an explanation for his work… but I am usually left with certain open questions as well.” And as always, a wonderful pleasure to be here. Yuen

    • Thank you very much for your comment Yuen. For me, art has always been a garden of pleasure, even though I have my favorite media as well as favorite artists. I myself, spent years painting in water colors, and I enjoy the work of others in that media as well. It offers me the greatest pleasure, and excitement as well. But sometimes, it’s a pleasure to be faced with a challenge. Very glad you liked the post.

  23. Your words flow again. So potent. I needed to read this and to understand it, as I too, meet the problem frequently. Usually ending with a question mark.

    • Thank you Bob. There are man similarities between art and religion… and prominent among them is differences in personal taste. Sometimes, we’re left with a question mark, and sometimes with out and out dislike… but it is such fun to discover something that speaks directly to our hearts.

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