Origins and Sources
“A bstract art” has become a household word in our time. Few terms are so frequently used, and occasionally misused, as the adjective “abstract” in the discourse about the visual arts. The wide popularity of the term, however, does not ensure that we are clear as to its original meaning. Criticism, both artistic and philosophical, while enriching the meanings attached to the concept, has also burdened it with a variety of conflicting connotations that have blurred whatever outlines and clear contours it may possess. To some of these discussions we shall have to return in the course of this part.
The contemporary student, trying to grasp the proper meaning of the term “abstract,” will ask what it meant to the artists and critics who coined the concept. In the following brief comments I do not propose any new definition of abstract art, nor do I intend to defend any old interpretation of this notion. I shall only attempt to describe briefly what, in the first decade of the twentieth century, was meant and implied by the term, and what the ideas were that originally nourished the thought of the founders of the movement that eventually became so famous.
Whatever else the concept may tell us now, in the early decades of the twentieth century “abstract art” was perceived, first of all, as a profound, some would say a complete, break with the age-old tradition that art is primarily a representation of visible reality. In the parlance of modern criticism this tradition was sometimes called “the Tyranny of the Object.” Later in the century, as the work of Kandinsky became accepted, almost canonical, and the wide audiences visiting museums and exhibitions supported and furthered this view, abstract art came to be seen as the final break with all pictorial traditions, a fateful and decisive turn in the historical development of art.
Now, such a profound and explicit break with tradition, a turn of such momentous consequence, naturally has many facets and belongs to many