It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning. – Vincent Van Gogh
New scientific research has determined that looking at abstract art can alter people’s frame of mind. With art that is realistic and representational, people tend to home in on specific aesthetic details. But with abstract art, people have to take a broader look at the work. Abstract art allows the viewer to connect to their mind in a different way. As one scientist wrote, abstract art “frees our brains from the dominance of reality”. That is a very intriguing concept – breaking the shackles placed upon the mind by reality. This liberation can allow us to tap into areas of the consciousness that are normally unavailable during day-to-day life. Looking at abstractions can trigger self-examination, inspire insights and prompt storytelling.
All art is an abstraction of reality in one way or another. Art expresses the creative potential of the human mind. “Good” art is that which has some aspects (texture, contrast, color, balance, etc.) which are pleasing to the viewer for a myriad of reasons. But simply viewing abstract works of art can set aside commonplace thoughts and allow the viewer to create “psychological distance”. This mental distance lets people focus more on concepts rather than details. Abstractions burrow into the deeper cognitive levels and open hidden mental terrains to self-examination.
Taking in more metaphorical representations stimulates the mind to reach further into the transcendental ideas expressed. To understand how this all works, researchers said imagine an activity, say a class reunion that is happening in a few days. You would focus on the details, what clothes to wear. But when that reunion is a year away, the more psychologically distant nature frees you to think more abstractly, imagining the feeling of seeing old friends again, etc.. Because abstract art is not about a particular subject, the mind will take a more universal view. This inspires more creative thinking which can unconsciously lead to sudden insights.
In social psychology this sort of thinking is called construal. Construals are how people perceive and interpret the world.In order to make sense of the world, we have to mentally interpret our surroundings. This process can also be called “meaning making”. We all construct narratives about the influences in our lives. Meaning making is critical in family relationships. The so-called “ties that bind” (shared beliefs that link people) are woven throughout family bonds. When one is grieving the loss of a loved one we tell stories of their life and how they influenced our lives. People who are spiritually minded will use meaning making to discover the hand of the divine behind events in their lives. All these elements are also part of storytelling.
Art is visual storytelling, just as dance is physical storytelling. There are levels of meaning embedded within any work of art. And the audience must be engaged in the process in order to maximize the impacts of the story. These days we all are dealing with the storytelling of the pandemic virus. The impacts of this covid-19 ordeal have overtaxed our minds at times. Uneasiness and uncertainty have been graphed onto otherwise normal events like shopping, school, dining out. But perhaps, this strange abstraction will be the catalyst for seeing our lives in brand new ways. Maybe, together, we can create a new and brighter future out of today’s abstract unreality.