abstract

What’s the take-away on abstracts?

Ha. Abstracts are the take-away.

An abstract can be any of several things, of course. It can be a short statement at the beginning of a paper or dissertation saying what the gist of the effort is – the synopsis, the tl;dr, the elevator pitch, the take-away. It can be an epitome, a microcosm or essence or distillation of a thing – when you take away all the variable excrescences, it is what you still have. It can be a work of art with most or all representation taken away – or should I say it has bits of what you can perceive taken away from all the other bits and presented in a purified form.

A thing that is abstract is removed from the messy details of ordinary reality; a person who is abstract – or abstracted – could be preoccupied, distracted, mentally miles away from their surroundings; a concept that is abstract could be at several levels of remove from concrete details, and consequently difficult to grasp.

So when you reach for the abstract – or an abstract – it could be something that you can grasp quickly and take away, or it could be something that you cannot grasp, that is taken away before your hand can close on it. It could give the essence of a whole thing, or it could be a particular detail pulled out so that it can’t even be connected to its source.

Abstract is a particular way of seeing. An abstract is a thing seen in a particular way. But, you know, that’s true of everything: every way we have of seeing is particular, and everything we see is particular – pulled out of its full context. You can look closer or you can look farther away; either way, you see things in new ways. You can also ignore some details… as, frankly, we all do all the time. You can’t see the whole web of existence in any place at any time; if you can, if you achieve what Zen Buddhists call kensho or satori, you will yourself be abstracted.

For fun, I took some abstract photographs. Does that make sense? I mean, you can draw abstracts, but can you take them? A photograph is a representation of reality, right? How can it be an abstract? Well, abstract is from Latin ab ‘from, away’ and trahere ‘take, draw’. So why not take – and take away?

Look at the photo above, at the start of this. That’s abstract, right? It’s also a photo taken directly from my cell phone, unmodified – except it’s just a small bit cropped out of a larger photo. It has a painterly handling of the tones because of the way the phone processes the images for maximum punch with minimum file size. An iPhone photo, examined closely, looks like a very detailed watercolour.

Look at this:

That’s taken with a much better camera, and there’s plenty of detail available. It’s just cropped, rotated, and with the levels adjusted so the shadows are black. To take the essential curves away, and to take away almost everything else.

The same with that one. But you can see something that looks like a real texture in both, yes?

Here’s something else. Does taking away focus make something more or less abstract? Is the texture too real? And yet texture is also a quality you can take away.

This is a much closer view of the same subject as the previous (a different part of it, though). You can see the material. But do you know what it is? If it looks like something real but you’re not sure what, is it abstract or not?

Isn’t the abstract there to make you question what reality consists of? And isn’t an abstract there to give you a quick view of a piece of reality?

An abstract is made by taking away. But it is you who decide what you will take away from it… with it.

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