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January 11, 2008


Memphis Aggie

Hey Tim,

I love art, especially painting and I remember the sense of loss I felt in my Art History class in College once we reached the modern era. Still I have actually seen some rare abstract art pieces I appreciated, at least a little. I was never moved however to anything other than mild amusement. I would disagree with those who might say abstract art is non-communicative. In my view much of it demonstrates the artists contempt for his audience very clearly.

The social pressures around the art world sound as bad as the pressure to be liberal in the Academy.

Mark Scott Abeln


Excellent topic. I know what you mean about the problem of criticizing non-representational art and the fear of being seen as an ignorant rube. However, I found that since I've become Catholic it's become easier: and also that I'm free to give credit where it is due when abstract art is done well.

A philosophical approach to art makes things clear, at least in my way of thinking. That abstract art is consistently pushed from the direction of nihilism, Marxism, and heresy ought to tell us something, and that we ought to take the problem seriously. A good Christian should not follow the ways of the world, which lead to death, and even if the evils of bad art seem quite 'abstract' compared to the evils of abortion and genocide, we must fight for the good on all fronts. Art is relatively unimportant in the ultimate scheme of reality, being so far removed from God in the chain of being, but it is of supreme importance to us psychologically.

On the other hand, seeing art as a virtue, according to the ethical system of Aristotle and Aquinas, lets us appreciate abstract art and distinguish good art from bad. Someone with great artistic virtue has inborn talent, much education, and develops his art with plenty of practice: we can say that an artist is good if he can reliably make what he imagines. I recall seeing a film of an abstract artist at work back in the 1950s: he obviously knew what he was doing, and was very precise and methodical about it, and so we can truthfully give him credit for having this kind of artistic virtue. Aquinas also tells us that art is not a moral virtue, so being a good artist doesn't make you a blessed person.

Certainly abstract art has its place, especially with edge and area decoration, such as floors, ceilings, and borders around windows and doors. Certainly in a church you wouldn't want to have pictures of the Saints on floors, so abstract patterns would be quite welcome. However, I find a framed abstract painting, put in a prominent place, quite offensive.

Adam D

The stigma aspect of this discussion is fascinating and unfortunate. But I hope that civility can be maintained from various perspectives. I, for one, very much love and appreciate highly realist and abstract art. I dare say that there is plenty of abstract art that can be very deeply moving and communicative and, muas one who paints the occasional abstract work (though I paint more realist work) I take offense at a criticism like "I would disagree with those who might say abstract art is non-communicative. In my view much of it demonstrates the artists contempt for his audience very clearly."

It does say "much" instead of "all" and that's something. But the tenor of such a comment isn't much better than the same element in the art world Tim rightly disagrees with that would stigmatize the individual who doesn't wholeheartedly support abstract art.

Tim J.

"I dare say that there is plenty of abstract art that can be very deeply moving and communicative..."

See, this - certainly if you are talking about non-representational art - is where you lose me. Can you give me an example of a piece of non-representational art that you, personally, find moving, and explain?

Adam D

An example, sure. I love Richard Diebenkorn's work (also sometimes a figurative painter but some of his figures are quite ugly) here's a couple. sorry about the long url's


But an explanation? I doubt it'll do much good (explaining one's love of any of the arts is like explaining falling in love) but here are some words.

I think the first entry into abstract art is representational art and the very sensuousness of the craft itself. There are plenty of people who think they love painting, but they only understand image, not the craft. For such people there's no difference between looking at a print or web image and seeing the original painting. But a lover of painting (as against just a lover of image) has to stand before the actual object. Part of what's so moving is the brushstroke, the layering of color and the subtleties that occur on the surface of a painting as an object of purely sensual enjoyment, in conjunction with what's conveyed as image. Abstract art distills such sensuousness -- at least my favorites do.

There also are the various formal rules established in the Western tradition of painting that have their own internal logic and beauty like the rule of thirds, golden rectangles and such. Appreciation of these kinds of visual forces in a painting and the sense of weight, balance and tension (which affect all paintings) become another entry point for appreciation of an abstract painting. In any realist work I look for, and delight in, such devices. A realist painting which doesn't utilise any such understanding tends to be a boring, weak work. Sometimes even when there is some lovely realistic rendering that occurs. There is delight to be taken in such principles in and of themselves, which again the abstract work has distilled down to a painter's chief concerns.

And then, again derivative of realist painting, there are certain conditioned responses to color. I love how vibrant, saturated color moves forward in a painting, while duller or bluer colors often recede. Looking for the tricks a landscape painter needs to utilize to achieve believable space is such fun. Abstract painting plays with the same stuff, color to move space, create contrasts or harmonies and reference nature, industry, organic objects.

All of this, of course, is just formalism. I do enjoy and appreciate even just that in a painting, but I wouldn't say it's quite enough for me to be deeply moved. For instance, I've never really cared too much for old Dutch flower arrangement paintings which display an ultimate mastery of formal technique but (for myself) end there. But I don't find my favorite abstract paintings do end there. And here I can't explain much further. They just evoke, they tug at my heart in a mysterious manner.

The other night I was listening to a Rachmaninoff composition and it made me feel nostalgic for particular kinds of experience I've never experienced. I visualized this awesome love affair, and a flight from danger and a tragic bittersweet sense of loss ... very evocative and sensual and human and steeped in human experiences, but an altogether abstract composition with no explicit story.

Diebenkorn's painting do something similar. I almost always read them as landscapes with some hinting of story and particular times. These paintings, showing nothing explicit, evoke very real experiences.

That's probably enough for now. Looking forward to your concluding statement on the subject.


I'm a Chicago resident who is unmoved by Picasso, so I definitely can understand how you feel. Explain all you want about his blue period, or how is wife versus his lover is portrayed, etc., but I will never 'appreciate' him. He makes my nose crinkle!

If I have to understand the artist in order to appreciate the art, I think the focus is pointing in the wrong direction. Give me a Caravaggio ANY DAY!

Dali is another artist that used to make me roll my eyes, until I went to the Picasso Museum in FL. WOW.... his religious paintings just blew me out of the water. So much so that all of the sudden, I was able to appreciate his more popular work.

IMO, art should inspire us. There's so much ugliness in this world, I don't need jarring or negative art. The beautiful uplifts me. Is it possible that the role of artist as rebel or social critic makes it such that the desire to create beauty or that which inspires awe would make him appear to be a 'sell-out'?

David B.

One. last. time: Great post, Jimmy!


What is music but "non-representational" (read: abstract) art? Many don't "get" entire genres while nevertheless deeply appreciating others, even with much honest effort. De gustibus non est disputandum.


To stand before Picasso's "Guernica" as I had the fortune several times (mostly before it was repatriated to Spain, and once in Madrid), I was more moved to my core than any non-abstract depiction of the horrors of civil war, even Goya's masterful depiction of the same.

Mary Kay

I could get only one of Adam's links to work.

Abstract art leaves me cold. The only way I see it could possibly be pleasing would be what Adam suggested, the sensuousness of color and texture. However, I have yet to see any examples of abstract art that do that.


Perhaps the most HONEST and symbolic expression of modern, or abstract, art might be attained by carefully chrome plating a huge pile of natural steer manure, setting it on a 12 volt rotating pedestal, and place as a "welcoming work" at the entrance at the many MOMA's throughout the country and aroound the world!

The title of this strategically located and partially 'organic' modern work of sculpture could be:

"The art of B.S......it's what it's all about!"

At least, this would be modern art that would have a meaning, the depths of which could truly be undertood by all visiting the museum! Kind of a preview of what they're going to find as they wander the halls!!

Laura Peratt

A. Williams: LOL! I would tend to agree! On a more serious note, I also have a very difficult time appreciating "abstract" art. Most of the abstract paintings I've seen are ugly and look like someone just vomited on the canvas. Most of the abstract sculptures I've seen look like a train wreck or something dropped from outer space. I did see a modern sculpture of the Blessed Virgin once that was interesting.... it was flat but flowed in neat curves, and there was a hole where her womb would be, through which you could see the altar and the pews of the church she was in. What disturbed me about it, though, is that, like most abstract sculpture (and even modern representative paintings) I've seen, there are no facial features. It's almost as if modern art tries to strip humans of features and humanity and make us into flat, featureless shapes.

Of course, I really am an ignorant rube when it comes to art, so my opinion doesn't count for much. Speaking of ignorant rube, what's wrong with Norman Rockwell? I realize that it's not "great" art in the sense of the Dutch masters or Da Vinci or something, but it is very realistic and sensitive, portraying subjects the average person can appreciate, and it never fails to "move" me in some way -- usually to make me laugh or to feel nostalgic. Can someone educate this poor rube on why Rockwell is so despised that an art professor would be denied tenure because he had a good opinion of him?


OTOH -- much "abstract" art is abstract in another sense. The sense in which :) is an abstract representation of a face. Picasso's "Guernica" is abstract in that sense; you can tell that there are people and animals in the painting, although you could not identify specific people as those painted; it depicts an abstraction of the victims.

Much of Alphonse Mucha's work is abstract in that sense.

(Say, how many of you have read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics?)


Rockwell was an illustrator. Not an artist.

Mind you, I suspect that many illustrators of the twentieth century will outlast the fine artists. Not to mention that many movie sound-tracks will outlast the symphonies of the same era.

Tim J.

Mary, there can be a great deal of overlap between illustration and fine art. Some of Rockwell's work crossed over into the realm of fine art.

Probably much of the Christian art with which we are most familiar through the centuries could easily be classed as both.

Mark Scott Abeln

I think it is just the Modern era that has the confusion about what is art, and who is an artist, and this confusion has led to division, controversy, and much repulsive and nihilistic art.

In my opinion, it is more helpful if we take the more traditional view that everything made by man is art. And if we consider art as being a virtue, then we can judge art with some (although of course not total) objectivity. Everything made ought to be made with artistry, and aesthetics ought to be a part of everything made. Just look at the prose and engineering works of ages past to see this artistry in mundane things.

Modern art theory descends from the theories of Kant and Hegel, and in my opinion, they have ruined art just as much as they have ruined religion and politics.


Mary, there can be a great deal of overlap between illustration and fine art.

Agreed. As a (sometime and never very serious) artist and illustrator, I don't like the glorification of the term "art" to mean something grandiose and highfalutin. Fine art is art; so is commercial art -- and both can be either good art or bad art. If something is bad art, I would rather say it's bad art than say it's "not art"; likewise, if something is commercial and unpretentious.

There is art in a decent Looney Tunes cartoon, both in the writing and in the animation. Not fine art, certainly although occasionally it rises to a level of excellence that warrants and rewards serious critical consideration. Certainly there is art, and fine art, in the work of Norman Rockwell. How good it is is a separate question (and I would I think agree with Tim that some of it is quite good).

Mary Kay

The difference between Norman Rockwell's work and abstract art (to date) is that I go back again and again to Norman Rockwell's work, whereas I can't wait to turn the page on any and all abstract art.


Is it possible that every age has had great works of art (that last) and really crummy attempts (which are only remembered by the people in that age)? The crummy art gets recycled into fire wood eventually and the good stuff gets collected and taken care of? But there is a period were the good stuff is mixed in with the bad and the majority of people have no idea what they are talking about?

Chuck Close is an absolutly awesome modern abstract artist. What he does is technically challenging and creative. It also, I think, lifts up and celebrates the dignity of the human person.


His most abstract portraits (portraits made of a grid with colored blobs) are incredible. These paintings actually depend on our brains assembling the pieces to understand what we are looking at --it's like any really good art because it transmits an idea from the artist to the person looking at it.

I can imagine Chuck Close paintings being admired 500 hundred years from now (along with a few others). 500 years from now people will probably be talking about how terrible 2508A.D. trends in art are; how terrible they felt when reading about the last one hundred years of art. Imagine a conversation like "wow, to live at the beggining of the twenty first century -- how lucky they were to be alive when the great Chuck Close was painting. And Time Jones, the classical artist how suddnely began experimenting with finger paints. The 2000s were really a golden age for art."



Uh about the typo: Time Jones, the artist formerly known as Tim Jones. :)

Has anyone here read the book by GK Chesterton called "the Flying Inn?" There is a funny scene about modern abstract no representational art. Also, I know Chuck Close is representational and might not be a good example for the current discussion, but he is abstract (in a way) and modern.


Blaine: Despite the level of abstraction in Chuck Close's work, the clearly representational dimension of his portraits places him beyond the pale of the kind of non-representational abstract art Tim Jones is speaking of.

Tim J.

Exactly, SDG. Close's work is *highly* representational, though ingeniously so. I would like to see it in person.


Tim J. wrote:
"There is, of course, the real possibility that I may just be missing something, that I am a thick-skulled, irrecoverable rube - what C.S. Lewis called a "trousered ape" - who simply lacks the imagination, the emotional depth and psychological complexity to plumb the mysteries of abstract art. That's fine. I'll admit the possibility... but it's not for lack of honest effort."

There is also the possibility that many of the abstract artists are the real "trousered apes" - that they lack the imagination, the spiritual depth and humility to acknowledge and seek to understand the mysteries of the Creator within their art.

'Late Night With David Letterman' used to have a segment called "Ape or Artist?", in which a piece of abstract art was shown and Dave and Paul had to guess whether the piece was made by an ape or a human artist. It was telling that you really couldn't see a difference between the human and simian abstract work. The best you could do was make a guess. Perhaps the "Ape or Artist?" segment should be renamed "Ape or Trousered Ape?".


I formulated the opinion that most modern art is about shock-jocks trying to make a buck, starting with Picasso. And I agree that much of modern abstract art wouldn't be so bad if it were merely decorative art.

Just to give you an example: I and my family have been to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts several times. The Modern Art museum is across the street from it, but we'd never been to it. However, they were doing improvements to the HMFA foyer and the public would then get to it through the Moder Art museum. We figured that as long as we had to, we'd check it out. There were a handful of interesting works, but we left laughing when we couldn't figure out if the couch in front of a huge blank canvas was part of the "art" or not...

May Fra Angelico pray for painters.

Tim AJ

There is an excellent essay that touches on this topic by Katy Carl in the Catholic Journal: Ideas, Art, and Faith - Dappled Things. As a subscriber - I would highly recomend the essay and the Journal.

Self-Gift and the Literary Vocation
"There is a great divide among creative people today, a divide that has always existed but has become more pronounced throughout the last century and a half. Art seeks to recover itself from the stylistic extremes of modernism and postmodernism. It seeks to re-learn how to reach the larger culture while remaining true to itself. As it does this, it again faces a central dilemma..."


Mary, there can be a great deal of overlap between illustration and fine art.

You want an explanation or not?


Little Gidding

Tell it, Tim. The emperor has no clothes!


I wish I had time for a more substantial comment, since I've been following this on-and-off discussion since it began over two years ago.

For now:

I think rapoli is on to something in his suggestive comment re: music.

Also, Tim's foreword ("In truth, all visual art involves abstraction") is an essential and pivotal reminder.

And, a few comments on these words of Tim's:
"If we can talk at all about "bad" and "good" abstract art, that almost proves there must be something worthwhile in the good abstract art, doesn't it? ... I can now say that there are a number of pieces of abstract art that I think are successful, interesting, even engaging... just not what I consider to be great art, for reasons I'll get to in the next post. One of the things great art does is move the viewer, and I have never once been moved by a piece of abstract art. I don't see how that works."

1. You've significantly softened your position from past posts, admitting that you have not found a defensible way (yet) to "consign abstract art to the dustbin" (without consigning more to the dustbin than you want to.) The fact that this post is a concession seems to be lost on some of the commenters.

2. Tim, do you agree that you've located the determining criterion for great art in the subject (the viewer) rather than the object (the painting)?

... Here's my own opinion, that I don't think I would be able to adequately defend even if I had the time to try: I think that "good" and "bad" in the arts is partially objective and partially subjective. I think this frustrates some Catholics who want everything to be objective, like the dogmas of our faith, and I think this frustrates some "post-moderns" who want everything to be subjective, like the dogmas of their "faith."


One more thing: Can't a person love Norman Rockwell and Wassily Kandinsky? Can't a person have "catholic" tastes in the original meaning of that word?

Tim J.

Ryan! I was wondering when you might show up. Thanks for your comments.

Yes, as the post makes pretty clear, I have softened my position somewhat, though I doubt (in the end) as much as you might like. It was partly due to your (and others') input that I hesitated consigning non-representational art to the ash heap and took more pains to try and understand it, so I DO owe you a beer for that.

"Tim, do you agree that you've located the determining criterion for great art in the subject (the viewer) rather than the object (the painting)?"

No. I do think, though, that you and I are probably in agreement that there are subjective AND objective elements to beauty, or at least to the experience of beauty.

Of course one can "like" both Kandinsky and Rockwell. But liking something doesn't make it good art. People enjoy all kinds of things that hardy bear talking about. In France, Jerry Lewis is a genius. I like Kandinsky a great deal better than some others, but that's for the next post.


Tim, I'm looking forward to the next post!

I've written a few lighter personal thoughts on Catholicism and "taste" in the comments of this old post on Disputations.


I believe I was born an artist. I do often wonder whether its that noble or good, whether I am contributing to the world in a meaningful way. When I mention that concern to people, to clients, they insist that what I do is a good thing. They say I bring beauty into the world, that what I do makes life more pleasing and interesting to the people who see my art. I dont know how much of that I believe lol, but I do know that for myself art is a pleasing passion. I also see it as a language. I can "read" not just the work of art, but get something of the artist themselves and the time and place in which they lived. As for abstract art, I do find that there are pieces that move me, even enthrall me with their creativity. If God is above all the Creator, and we are made in Gods image, then at heart we too are creators. The explosion of a supernova and the glowing, swirling clouds of gas and energy,,,, the splash of colors and swish of a brush on a canvas,,, the twisted tower of shining steel sculpture, covered in mirrored shards of glass.

Sometimes context of an object, abstract or not can say something. There is a new monastary being built near my hometown of Tulsa. There is a room I saw in a photograph with a simple altar in it. The room is completely white as if the walls, ceiling floors were all made of a soft, white marble. There is a long low arch on the back wall, from behind the arch the soft glow of the sun. No trim, no ornamentation of any kind. Imagine what you could hang on one of those walls. A rusty old shovel hanging there, imagine meditating and praying in that room, what would it say to you? Would depend on your feelings and thoughts at the time. How about a canvas covered in a grey mist, darker at the bottom, lighter at the top, with a few slashes of white? How about a shock of color in this room, square of purple that seemed to glow from the middle? In the context of the room, white a room for praying and meditation, and the context of the person doing the viewing. Who knows what you may feel or find.

I remember when I was younger and "new at the language of art", I had this book of paintings in the Louvre. I was so enthralled with the beautiful paintings full of robed figures and angels and columns. The intricacy, detail, work, balance of color and light. There was this one painting I remember by Rembrandt, simple little painting of a valley with a wooded forest on either side. In the middle a small bridge, just beyond a modest building or home. Didnt give it a second thought. For years I relished those "gaudy", flamboyant paintings in that book and in others. Then as I became a more accomplished artist myself and just perhaps because I got bored with the same ol same ol over-the-top productions, I started to appreciate paintings and drawings that were more simple, that really seemed to say far more than those "bigger" ones.

Then one day I turned the page and saw that simple Rembrandt that I had once thought boring, I saw it as though seeing it for the first time and was shaken to my core. It took my breath away and almost brought tears to my eyes. I saw that he had captured the briefest of moments, heavy rain filled clouds which had broken open and a beam of soft light glowed across this little bridge in a valley. A tiny figure was barely noticeable in the foreground. Nature was huge, yet soft and forgiving. He had somehow perfectly, simply, captured a moment and a feeling. And it now, incredibly, exists forever. So as I have "evolved" over time, some things that I wouldnt give a second glance to have begun to open up to me in ways I couldnt have fathomed. Sometimes we must trust others assessments. Rembrandt was truly a master artist, even though at one time I didnt really get why when compared to other paintings that I liked so much better.

One more thing briefely. We have all seen a hundred Madonna and Child paintings in our lifetimes. Some "better" than others. But what I have learned to see is that they all have to be considered with each other. One raises a finger or has the Madonna looking in a particular direction. What is that artist saying versus one that has painted the same subject slightly differently? I can see something of the artist, his life, his beliefs, his place and where he lived, his concerns, fears, hopes... so much more than just a Madonna and Child. Sometimes those subtle differences can only be registered because you have seen others, to notice the differences. Its the differences that say something. Same with many types of modern art. We have all seen the sculpted "blob" its not the blob that has the meaning its comparing how that artist chose to sculpt it, the size, material, whether it sags downward, seems to reach up, holds another blob in a seeming embrace, etc. Once you learn the language of the particular form by comparing it to others in its family, then you begin to see and get things you otherwise couldnt.


"Abstract" art runs a wide spectrum. From the pointillism of A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, through the impressionist works of Monet, Manet and Renoir, to Picasso and Dali, through the 19th and 20th centuries art has become more and more abstracted. It's interesting that as our technical ability to reproduce reality has grown (photograph, film, television), our art has become more and more abstracted.

I enjoy some abstract art, particularly impressionist art. However, the real abstracted art is lost on me. I figure if I could do it, it ain't art!

Here's perhaps an interesting question: In 200 years, who will be seen as the more important artist of the 20th century: Picasso or Norman Rockwell?


However, the real abstracted art is lost on me. I figure if I could do it, it ain't art!

This presumes that "doing art" is all about technique. Sure, you could paint some canvases white; but you didn't. And even if you did, that wouldn't make you Robert Ryman.

Take Sol LeWitt's wall drawings. At first glance they are pencil lines drawn on the wall. And you can look at it and say, "hey, I could do that!" And clearly anyone can draw lines on a wall. In fact, LeWitt didn't install his own art; he had a team of installers do it. Because the art is not the lines on the wall; the art is the instructions on how to draw the lines on the wall. The idea is the machine that makes the art. LeWitt demonstrates that the art is independent of the skills of the artist.

LeWitt is, of course, just an example. But just because a person is technically skilled at painting does not make that person an artist; that person is a painter.

Here are some paragraphs and sentences that might be helpful.

Tim J.

"The idea is the machine that makes the art. LeWitt demonstrates that the art is independent of the skills of the artist."

No, Lewitt may *assert* that, he does not demonstrate it. See, this is where I believe artists and art critics have educated themselves into imbecility and have intellectually choked to death on their own jargon.

The art world is in need of a good, firm Heimlich maneuver.

"But just because a person is technically skilled at painting does not make that person an artist; that person is a painter."

Maybe, but the fact that a person declares themselves an artist doesn't make them an artist.

If you are of the opinion that everyone is an artist, try watching American Idol and keep telling yourself that everyone is a singer, that it's the idea that makes the art, that skill doesn't enter into it.

David B.

See, this is where I believe artists and art critics have educated themselves into imbecility and have intellectually choked to death on their own jargon.

I need a t-shirt with that on it, though I'd replace 'artists and art critics'
with ____ and _____, and fill it in later. ;-)


No, Lewitt may *assert* that, he does not demonstrate it. See, this is where I believe artists and art critics have educated themselves into imbecility and have intellectually choked to death on their own jargon.

Well, Lewitt would probably agree with you to some extent. It depends on what you mean by "assert". I surely asserted it and it's a notion of art that I happen to agree (in part) with. But I think that Lewitt has demonstrated it insomuch as the nature of his art is consistent with his notions of what art is. If all he did was paint ill-proportioned butterflies, claiming that the idea becomes the machine that makes the art isn't necessarily reflected in that. Maybe I shouldn't have said that the art and the artist are independent; that's an oversimplification. But concept and idea are important elements of art, which is why I wanted to point out to commenter Brian above.

Maybe, but the fact that a person declares themselves an artist doesn't make them an artist.

Clearly. And this is clearly the subject of much debate. But I don't think everyone is an artist and that even fewer people are good artists. But I don't think that Brian's statements I was replying to are valid; that is the notion that "if I can do that, it isn't art". Because just because he thinks he can do it doesn't mean he can. There is more that goes into conceptual art, for instance, than just throwing a bunch of junk together and calling it art. That is the perception that people have, and I suppose if they have it, it's valid and the art hasn't succeeded as much as it could have. But it's also under-informed.

If you are of the opinion that everyone is an artist, try watching American Idol and keep telling yourself that everyone is a singer, that it's the idea that makes the art, that skill doesn't enter into it.

You misunderstood me. I said Brian's comments presumed that art was *all* about technique. I did not mean to imply that technical skill is irrelevant. It most certainly isn't. But to run with your American Idol analogy, there are many technically talented singers who are not great performing artists.

But conversely, just because an artist doesn't faithfully reproduce how the eye physically sees nature (which is my interpretation of Brian's comments about "if I could do it") doesn't mean that he doesn't have technically skill in areas such as composition, form, ratio, texture, etc.

Anyway, I'm curious to read your forthcoming follow-up post on what makes good abstract art.

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