I recently came across an article on the Guardian about abstract art which is forty thousand years old being found in a cave in Gibraltar, Forty thousand years! That would mean that the abstract art piece was made by Neanderthals, the species that is a direct ancestor to the modern human being. It also disproves a theory that Neanderthals were incapable of creating abstract art forms. This discovery, basically a series of crisscrossing line on a stone surface, clearly shows that the history of abstract art might take us much deeper into the past than was previously thought.
Abstract is the most sought after form of artwork today. Appreciation for art has increased globally; and if not appreciation then the sales certainly have. People, esp young people who are starting life afresh and are buying real estate are looking towards art to fill their walls and abstract art is a favorite for such people. For one, the concept of the abstract is eminently fashionable and will appeal to such a young audience. Secondly, the belief seems to be that the lesser one understands something, the less chances of it coming under criticism. Abstract contains that air of befuddlement for the average person. Ironically, its also part of the charm.
Abstract art, as we know it came into the picture about the late 19th century in Europe, when the artists largely felt the need for a different form of art form which could express their thoughts and ideas better. With a rapidly changing world scenario, and European imperialism at its peak, the rapid industrialization and modernization and the resultant prosperity and urbanization, the concept of abstract started taking root. The appreciation for shapes and logic within representative color themes and shapes took root among the European polity.
While abstract art forms and shapes already existed in Eastern cultures and civilizations, as did they in native American cultures. The very concept of calligraphy is abstract, and one does not need to know the language to appreciate and enjoy calligraphy. Hence we find the Quranic verses written on the Taj Mahal and other Mughal monuments beautiful. However the idea of such forms being a separate genre of art perhaps started in Europe. Till then Europe or the West was primarily following the genre made popular by the Renaissance masters like Dante and Vinci, artwork which primarily had the patronage of the church. However in the 19th century, the situation had changed a lot.
Different art movement were coming up and artists were now seeking more freedom of expression than their predecessors. Three of such art movements directly contributed to the development of abstract art. Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism fused into one and got splashed on the canvases. There was also another crucial reason for abstract art to take shape. The patronage of the church, especially the Catholic church had decreased and the primary patronage was from individual patrons and the nueva rich, including liberal industrialists.
As we stepped into the twentieth century, abstract art become the dominant discourse and not an alternative art form. The mainstreaming of abstract art was possible due to the success of artists such as Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Seurat in the previous century. The popularity for their work and styles inspired painters like Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain, Raoul Dufy and Maurice de Vlaminck to popularize their own adapted modern styles which revolutionized the Paris art scene with bold, wild and vibrant colorful themes that critics dubbed as Fauvism. What that essentially did was shift the capital for art from Italy to Paris. Later generations of painters, including cubists like Pablo Picasso ensured that the status quo remained firmly in place for the rest of the century. Abstract art is now the overwhelmingly dominant art form and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.