If we accept that the work of art must communicate in a way that moves us, what does this say about the content of visual art?
By the content, I mean what's "in" the painting or sculpture. Is it a landscape, a still-life, a portrait, or non-objective (no recognizable objects)?
Since humans communicate vast amounts of information to each other with body language and facial expression, does this mean that art with figures might have an easier time carrying messages? The figures themselves, if depicted well (sculpted, painted, drawn) can send their emotions and attitude to the viewer. On top of this, the artist's approach to the figures can send the artist's attitude and emotions about people. There are many layers of possibility here.
So the vocabulary and vehicles for communicating might both be augmented when the work contains people. This may help explain why so much art, especially so much great art, contains the human figure.
A larger reason, though, could be that humans have more to say about people than about other subjects. And if humans were more willing models, as easy and cheap to pause and hold in place as fruit and landscapes, we might see even more paintings of people, and fewer of other subjects. I've watched crowds in art museums and galleries, and viewers spend more time on the paintings with figures in them - more than on landscape or still-life.
One of the reasons Cezanne's still-life paintings are so amazing is that they are powerful works of art, even though the subjects are so mundane. We generally expect apples to be emotionally mute, and to carry no message. Yet in Cezanne's paintings the colors and composition move many of us. Some of us are moved just by the way he applied the paint. (Image above is of a Cezanne still-life with a basket of apples.)
And here we take another swing through modern art. Some art seems to depict no objects at all - it is just about the forms, without subject. Most people call these works abstract and while that's not always technically correct*, I'll go ahead and use that term, as well.
How can abstract art communicate? How can it move us if it contains nothing we recognize.
Colors and composition (the arrangement/relationship of forms to each other and to their surroundings) can speak for themselves. This kind of art is for a narrower audience. Much of the audience is other artists, or people of visual arts sensibilities, who learn to enjoy the distilled form of the visual arts. (Image is of Paul Klee's painting Ancient Sound.
Actually, many people are quite used to abstract art in other forms. Music, without words, is an example of an abstract form. We can be deeply moved by music that has no subject or story. Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings moves many people, and it's quite abstract. For some people the same is true of abstract painting and drawing. Certain arrangements of colors or shapes, light and dark, textures, volumes and spaces, can push our buttons like music does.
I've seen a lot of different reactions to abstract visual art. On the negative side there is a friend of mine who says, "it just doesn't do anything for me." He acknowledges that there is something going on - because others are tuned in and moved - but it doesn't reach him where he is. There is my reaction to a lot of sculpture, where I find I am not deaf, but pretty hard of hearing, so a lot of sculpture leaves me cold (though I love most Henry Moore, and I've learned to love Calder). There is the reaction of a relative who teases me about abstract art because she implies it isn't art at all, or a lesser form of art than objective or "beautiful" art. I maintain that beauty is a separate affair. I agree with her that the art we live with every day might be better chosen from the beautiful rather than the powerful, but abstract art can be both, if you're tuned to it.
I will never forget the day in my teens when we shopped for Christmas presents in Albany, NY. We were in the big mall on the government complex, and there was a huge underground passage that connected all the buildings. It seemed to be miles long. Since we were shopping for each other, we had split up, and I was hurrying down that long tunnel alone, dodging the crowds, and looking at the enormous abstract murals on the walls. Some were probably over a hundred feet long, and dozens of feet high, painted directly on the concrete. Most were just interesting to look at, but suddenly one made me stop and stand still. I was getting a message, a complicated, non-verbal message, and I liked it a lot. I walked slowly nearer to the piece and read its name. My mind seemed to explode with the possibilities, as the message and the title actually fit together and worked as a powerful whole. I "got" it for the first time - like a blind man suddenly seeing. I practically ran the whole rest of the long passage, looking at all the paintings carefully. Of the several dozen large paintings in that passage, several more suddenly opened up for me, now that the first one had paved the way.
And it happens to me still. I'll be walking down a street in Charleston, SC, looking in art gallery windows, and I'll suddenly be in danger for my life as the world disappears and I'm walking towards a painting, drinking it in, oblivious to traffic, pedestrians, the rain, whatever. The sensations are so much stronger, so uncluttered because there is no content other than composition. Pure form. It's as if abstract art were espresso and all other paintings were coffee. The abstract work is stronger, for me, and I am almost addicted to that hit.
But this is an acquired taste. And maybe, if I hadn't been arrogant about this taste when I was younger, and still hungrily protective of this aesthetic turf even now, that relative wouldn't tease me about it. That same relative doesn't like beer or most wines, but she understands that there is something there worthy of the connoisseur. She would probably have the same attitude towards abstract art (maybe she actually does) if I had handled it better when I was younger, and if I weren't so very serious about it still.
I need to lighten up.
*"Abstract art" is actually the end result of a process that started with a subject and removed the particular details, reducing the image to the essentials. What remains might only be the impression of the colors, or the shapes, or the visual movement and thrust of the objects, etc. Abstraction is an exploration, a mental exercise, and the end result may have no recognizable subject. On the other hand, there are artistic movements and techniques that create images without any starting subject. These may end up looking similar to abstractions, but they didn't go through the same process. So the correct technical name for both types together is "non-figurative" or "non-objective," meaning there are no recognizable objects in the end result. Of course these labels are hard to apply in many cases - like a piece that is meant to be read as non-objective (it's just about the composition) but viewers can still recognize objects.