Karl Marx argued in the Grundrisse (1857–58) that it is impossible to grasp the complexity of the world with an abstract concept. An idea is merely a starting point, which must be fleshed out through “the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete.” When applied to the aesthetic realm, this fundamentally anti-Platonic conception of abstraction runs counter to the idea that artists reach abstract forms via distillation, the process Theo van Doesburg famously illustrated with his 1917 abstraction of a cow. But if abstraction is a starting point and not a goal, the separation of the abstract and the figurative in art is a false dichotomy, because every artwork is a developed form of abstraction regardless of its style. This idea moreover enables us to reexamine art history not as a progress toward abstraction, but as a large pool of solutions for how to give concrete form to
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