Terry Teachout has an interesting video clip at the horizon where he explains the meaning of modernity: There isn't one. People would enjoy modern art more if they were willing to relax before beauty sans explanation. We need, therefore, to let it be. It's a thesis long under attack, hence I'm glad to see it defended. Mullarkey suggested as much when she offered, in a recent review, that a given artist was to be commended, for "she understood that art fulfills its purposes on the aesthetic plane alone."
I would not want to dispute this, but it seems (at first) to conflict with Jeremy Begbie's remarks (via leithart), that at least Kandinsky didn't see that way. Kandinsky's abstractions did have a point: "so that their physicality and particularity can be transcended." Read Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art and you'll almost certainly agree. Where Kandinsky went wrong, however, was his lack of specificity regarding the transcendent, a mistake Begbie (in his famous correction of Tillich) has long avoided.
Taking Teachout's cue of relating abstract art to music, now consider Begbie's recent remarks on music, and apply them (as I'm about to do) to abstract art.
The most basic response of the Christian toward [abstract art] will be gratitude. This does not mean giving unqualified thanks for every bit of [abstract art] we [see], but it will mean being thankful for the very possibility of [abstract art]. It will mean regularly allowing a piece of [abstract art] to stop us in our tracks and make us grateful that there is a world where [abstraction] can occur, that there is a reality we call 'matter' that oscillates and resonates, that there is [paint], that there is rhythm built into the fabric of reality, that there is the miracle of the human body, which can receive and process sequences of [color]. For from all this and through all this, the marvel of [abstract art] is born. None of it had to come into being. But it has, for the glory of God and for our flourishing. Gaining a Christian mind on [abstraction] means learning the glad habit of thanksgiving.So it is with abstraction, but don't expect to see that on the next gallery label.
When Augustine discusses the redemptive possibilities of music in De Trinitate he doesn't point to "Christian lyrics." Instead, he points to the fact of music itself. "The very consonance of the octave, the musical expression of the ratio 1:2, conveys even to human ears the meaning of the mystery of redemption." So it is with abstract art (at least the best of it). And so, one can agree with Teachout and Mullarkey on the pleasures of l'art pour l'art, while also insisting that it does signify much, much more.