It was partly by gaining some toehold on the difference between representational art and nonrepresentational art that I was able to increase my understanding of the term “postmodernism” .
Postmodernism is very difficult, if not impossible to define, but one of its characteristics is “lack of depth.” In this regard, lack of depth doesn’t denote simply superficiality, rather, lack of depth also means a freedom from referring to more primary bases, a playing on a surface that has its own set of rules. The postmodern work (or even postmodern life) does not try to adhere to some greater or higher objectivity as we find, for instance, in Plato, whereby the work of art is an imperfect representation of the object and the object an imperfect representation of a Form or Idea.
To explain further, let’s look at the difference between representational art and nonrepresentational art. Please bear in mind that I’m going to simplify.
1. Do You Recognize Something “Real” in the Artwork?
For instance, if you look at a still life, you may say, “I see an apple, a bottle and a chalice,” and others likely will see those, too. The still life is usually (and maybe necessarily) an example of representational art in that it represents an array of commonly recognized objects; it attempts to copy, even if in a subjective manner, something that’s real.
If the artwork falls into this category of being recognizable as depicting something real in particular, chances are it’s representational art. Other examples of representational art often include portraiture (persons), landscapes and wildlife.
2. Do You Recognize Something “Fictional” in the Artwork?
Do you “see something” in the artwork that others will likely recognize, too, but it’s something that’s “not really real”? A unicorn? A troll? A tree that grows humanoid hands instead of leaves?
If you do, this also counts as representational art. A depicted object need not lead an existence independent of human imagination.
3. Do You Not See Anything (Obvious) Depicted by the Artwork?
If you’re viewing a sculpture or painting, and it looks more like a “design” (basic circles, lines, color masses, etc.) than like some immediately recognizable object, chances are it’s nonrepresentational art. Sometimes this is loosely referred to as “modern art” or “abstract art,” though the three terms are not by any means interchangeable. For instance, a piece of abstract art may intend to represent some object, but such object isn’t as clearly demarcated as it often may be in representational art. Nonrepresentational art tends to be modern (or postmodern), but by no means is all modern art nonrepresentational, nor is all abstract art nonrepresentational.
4. Recognize the Overall Significance of the Difference
As we have seen, representational art claims some affinity for the objective, the universal or quasi-universal, the “real” (even if this “real” is “real fiction” as with the unicorn). This means that it’s at the very least offering an interpretation of the world and shared objects therein.
Nonrepresentational art, on the other hand, is not referring to anything “outside of itself”.
The significance here overall is that representational art, inasmuch as it points to something outside of itself, may be considered a commentary on something external, and this places it squarely in the realm of the social (and even political), whether that’s obvious at first blush or not. The cultural productions of a society reflect how that society views itself and the world around it.
Nonrepresentational art, on the other hand, may only offer commentary on art itself. One might call it “art about art”. The onus is almost entirely upon the viewer to provide and/or comprehend any meaning.
Nonrepresentational art commenting on art eventually leads back to the social, but only indirectly as compared with representational art. You may find that nonrepresentational art concerns itself with the “how” of artistic/cultural production rather than with the “what” of artistic commentary, and yet eventually this distinction (often called “form versus content”) blurs. It is often said of modern art and literature that (the) form is (the) content, or at least that there is no absolute distinction between the two.
Representational art uses form to denote a ready-made content, whereas nonrepresentational art amplifies form for its own sake.
Tip & Caution
- Study various artworks and ask yourself if each is an example of representational art or of nonrepresentational art.
- Note that there’s no absolute boundary between representational art and nonrepresentational art. Clouds might serve as a good parallel here. When you see a real cloud, you might also “see things in it,” such as an old man, a flower or a ship. Similarly, with some art, it could seem nonrepresentational in principle, yet you “see things” in it. Did the artist intend you to see these particular things? Does it even matter what the artist intends? Do others see things, too? Are they different or the same as you see? The more they differ, the more the work might tend toward being nonrepresentational. The more they’re the same, the more the work might tend toward the representational. But these are open-ended issues.