“But nobody is visually naive any longer. We are cluttered with images, and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine. (Dominique De MenilThe Rothko Chapel: Writings on Art and the Threshold of the Divine)

Susanne Langer wrote, “All good art is abstract” (1957:69) but A&O encourages us to ask, “what is not art”  and indeed, considering how the mind works, “what is not abstract?”


presentations:   http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2009/10/a-fundamental-design-and-life-lesson-from-the-zen-arts-is-to-never-use-more-when-less-will-do-this-goes-for-the-use-of-color.html  6October 2009 



Mark Rothko on the necessity of abstraction
“The writings of Mark Rothko, recently discovered in a dusty trunk and now published by Yale University Press under the aegis of the artist’s son Christopher, deal at considerable length with that seeming contradiction so commonly experienced in the humanities: Art must be both abstract and tethered to the earth. It is natural, I think, to wonder how works of art which aim to express nothing but the truth depart so aggressively from that reality apparent to the eye. …  In Mr. Rothko’s words: ‘The abstractionists of our age are also our objectivists, and they use appearances for the purposes of demonstrating the reality of the world of ideas.’”  (from https://languageandphilosophy.com/archive/ )


Beauty and the beholder: Highly individual taste for abstract, but not real-world images


Vessel and Rubin wrote that “… At the individual observer level both abstract and real-world images yielded robust and consistent visual preferences, and yet abstract images yielded much lower across observer agreement in preferences than did real-world images.  This suggests that visual preferences are typically driven by the semantic content of stimuli, and that shared semantic interpretations then lead to shared preferences. Further experiments showed that highly individual preferences can nevertheless emerge also for real-world scenes, in contexts which de-emphasize their semantic associations.”  (2013) 

[this underscores the delicacy and fragility of the TEACHABLE MOMENT]



Generalization is, in Reichenbach’s (1951) terms, “the essence of knowledge”

…and “the origin of science.”  Generalization, he points out, “is the very nature of explanation.”  Facts are explained when they are incorporated into a general law. [they are “connected”]




Imagine a cartoon of a philosopher’s family at the breakfast table. Dad is irritated and says:

 “Young man! At table you either generalize or particularize!  NOT BOTH!”

 But we do…



“Scientific abstraction liberates us from the slavery of facts.” (Walter Kaufmann, 1961, Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Anchor, NY p.93)

“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes….Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.” (Arshile Gorky)[i]

ABSTRACTION in the classroom

ABSTRACTION involves a selective perception …  But what RECRUITS or ARRESTS ATTENTION would be different for every student at THEIR INDIVIDUAL level of organization, as opposed to family or classroom or community  …  (see Vessel & Rubin’s comment in a box below)


  “deals with ideas rather than events”   Phenomenologically I try to link students reality to the ideality of art…

“Embodiment refers to giving concrete form to an abstraction, to making an idea or feeling tangible. “ (Chap 2)

It may well be that abstraction –a representation with minimal “baggage”–will more easily penetrate to deeper levels of consciousness; collateral information however is useful for making connections.  This idea might inform THE TEACHABLE MOMENT.


 The teachable moment is a rare opportunity for a transformative learning experience.  It is at such moments that inner and outer environments are aligned–in ways unique for each individual–to allow an extraordinary, unusually penetrating learning experience.   In traditional teaching we are too often and too easily satisfied by traditional metrics of successful teaching–usually memory of facts. At such times, we may neglect the higher calling of our profession: to engender meaning. [This is done by creating connections that result in course content being realized beyond mere knowing.  A realization that is owned by the student in ways that enable its creative applicability in other contexts. The difficulty is in the fact that meaning for us and for each individual student are never exactly the same. But as teachers we can launch students into the world where they can grab hold of the abstract knowledge we want them to realize by finding, in their own depths, the ties that bind content to life and foster a life of creative connections. Enabling students to do this is our self-actualization, this is our greatest legacy.”  (adapted from Chap 2 of The Phenomenological Heart of Teaching and Learning (Routledge 2019) Chap 2, p.29) 


ARE Patterns in Nature abstractions of their underlying causes?

Sumi-e and the Zen Aesthetic:

“The ancient art of Japanese brush painting called Sumi-e (墨絵) provides a powerful lesson concerning the use of color, communication, and restraints. Sumi-e was brought to Japan from China and is an art deeply rooted in Zen, embodying many of the tenets of the Zen aesthetic including simplicity and the idea of maximum effect with minimum means. In Sumi-e, great works are achieved with only black ink on washi(rice paper) or silk scroll. Using the black ink to achieve several variations of tones, we learn that powerful visual messages can be created with a single “color” in the form of different shades and tints.”


Expressing the essence with less
The objective of Sumi-e is not to recreate the subject to look perfectly like the original, but to capture its essence — that is, to express its essence. This is achieved not with more but with less. Therefore, useless details are omitted and every brush stroke contains meaning and purpose. The minimum amount of strokes or lines are used to convey meaning. Each brush stroke is meaningful and has a purpose. There is no dabbling or going back to make corrections. The ink is indelible and you have one chance to get it right. The strokes themselves, then, are said to serve as a good metaphor for life itself. That is, there is no moment except for this moment. You can’t go back, there is only now.

Sumi-e is another example of an art that embodies the very essence of simplicity and yet is in practice complex and takes a lifetime to master. This aspect of the art of Sumi-e too is a metaphor for life: One never truly masters the art of life or achieves perfection. The pursuit of perfection is the journey, and the journey is what it’s all about.”

It is worth reviewing the article from which this excerpt is extracted–it is at a website dedicated to making


Edward A. Vessel and Nava Rubin (2013)   Beauty and the beholder: Highly individual taste for abstract, but not real-world images  J Vis. ; 10(2): 18.1–1814. doi:10.1167/10.2.18.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662030/pdf/nihms-355794.pdf

Quoted by: Barcio, Phillip (2016) How Arshile Gorky Discovered Abstraction. Online magazine https://www.ideelart.com/magazine/arshile-gorky .   Sep 12, 2016.  Also, https://www.theartstory.org/artist-gorky-arshile.htm