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Before words

There seem to be certain emotions that are characteristic of childhood. I remember feeling certain ways and I notice that these feelings have become sparse. It seems to me that there where experiences of beauty and fascination pervading my early childhood days. Such feelings bring up emotional memories about being small, being in the garden or on the street. I remember the strange patterns of curtains or carpets and of cracks on the paving slabs and the branching patterns of ferns. These feelings seem to be rare now, but they can be evoked sometimes by something I see or a sound I hear.

What is essential about these particular aesthetic emotions is that there are no explicit concepts involved. When you grow up, the world is increasingly blanketed by a mesh of concepts. You do not see a visual structure again, you see a wall, a fence, a leaf. You do not hear a sound, a noise again but a car, a banging door or a bell. You identify the objects and what reaches your conscious attention is predominantly a conceptual representation. The immediateness of perception is lost.

One of the reasons I like abstract art so much might be that it throws me back into a state before words. I don’t have concepts, except for very basic “geometrical” ones like “line” or “speck”, to describe what I am seeing, or very general ones like “waves” that do not really capture the structure that is there. I cannot create an interpretation. I just see. I just hear. And there it is again, that feeling of pure beauty and fascination.

In a way, the small child is living in a world of abstract art, a world that is not yet interpreted by concepts. This is what you would see if you could step out of all those conceptual constructions again. The pictures children of this early age are drawing are purely sensual, with no discernible objects.

Then the drawings change. There are people consisting of heads, arms and legs, faces consisting of eyes and mouths, and houses with windows. The drawings of the children become conceptual and that immensely rich world of uninterpreted, beautiful and fascinating shapes, structures and textures is more and more driven to the back of our minds.

However, the non-conceptual perception can still be experienced, evoked by unnamed natural structures or by works of art that are “strange” in the sense of not being covered by our concepts. So one of the main avenues into such an experience is abstract art.

An abstraction in the original sense of the word is a completely conceptual thing, a very general concept with reduced sensual content. I think, therefore, that calling abstract art “abstract” is actually a misnomer. Better words would be “direct art”, “pre-conceptual art”, “non-conceptual art” or simply “sensual art”. It is art before words, and for me, it brings back those fascinating aesthetic feelings of early childhood, when the world did not yet consist of things.

(The picture is from

28 thoughts on “Before words

  1. One of your best yet! Very astute observations. Thank you very much for pointing my thoughts in this direction.

    I have always enjoyed creating abstract images and music far more than working within the binding constrictions of conceptual imagery and sound. This certainly helps me understand why.

    • Thank you. These insights came to me today on a walk through the forest (the weather has turned milder), looking at structures of tree bark, stones, lichens and other things I could not verbally describe and remembering walks with my parents as a small child. Just before, I had looked at some abstract photography ( that I like very much. The “Bark” poem is also a result of this afternoon walk.

      • Regrettably I don’t get many opportunities to walk in the forest these days. I no longer live in or very near any.

        Still, when out of doors, I sometimes find myself staring at natural objects for long periods, attempting to see again what I saw as a child. On rare occasions I come very close to success and this gives me cause to be thankful.

        • It is something one has to train. Maybe that is the purpose of Zen gardens.
          Similar experiences can be had even indoors. I once spent a week of holidays (with bad weather outside) looking through a microscope, watching ciliates.

  2. I like what you say a lot. As an abstract artist, I am continually trying to get people to connect with their feelings through art. You’d be surprised how many people look at a piece of art and not feel anything. They’ve lost the ability to “see” which is a great pity. Thanks for liking my painting “Spirit Lake”. The colours are much more subtle in reality. I plan to follow your blog, and look forward to future posts.

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  4. Thank you for linking back to this wonderful post of yours. You’ve given words to what was indescribable to me. The feeling that I have never really ‘grown up’ is now reinforced in the way you describe perception of such things as cracks in pavement as relating to a child’s ‘abstract’ view of the world. Pre-concept and non-verbal. Thank you! I want to now explore the couple of other links you’ve kindly left here in the comments. 🙂

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  9. It’s funny…young children who draw abstractly have only the concept that they’re supposed to put a crayon to paper. They have yet to grasp that the whole point is to represent something. Especially interesting when they have a coloring book with representations already there…yet they continue to color whatever the hell they want without any regard for the lines on the page.

    Interesting post. I’d never before thought about the emergence of concepts in this way.

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