|Another legacy of the 20th century is modernist abstraction in art. In 1955, the American Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock wrote:
"It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique. [...] The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing nature, such as the camera and photograph. The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world--in other words--expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces."
Modernism is an example of art stepping outside of life into a world of it's own theory, and it's own rules: art for art's sake. Yet ultimately there is no stepping outside of life, and all abstractions must manifest somehow in the messy social and physical world.
(quoted from Art in Theory Blackwell Publishers, 1992, p. 575-576)
Neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has some interesting theories about abstraction. He cites an experiment in which a rat is trained to recognize a rectangle over a square (rewarded with yummy treats when he picks the right shape). Then the rat is shown a different rectangle, one that is longer and thinner, along with the original rectangle and the square and, without hesitation the rat enthusiastically picks the new shape. Says Ramachandran, "Now _that's_ a rectangle!"
When we emphasize and isolate the extreme elements of a rectangle, we are abstracting the rectangle. But we are also representing the rectangle. Art oscillates between abstraction and representation, both are sides of the same coin. In theoretical abstractions such as visualizations and thought experiments, we invoke an image, or a pattern, or a relationship in order to make the information somehow meaningful and concrete. Spinning tales and drawing out narrative relationships is something humans do. Do our representations function as invention or description?