Am reading a very interesting book right now: The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art by Paul G. Bahn (Cambridge University Press). It's a fascinating look at what some refer to as "cave art," "rock art," and other descriptive monikers. Archaeology has always interested me, so this very comprehensive and well-researched book has been capturing much of my attention during what little spare time I've had lately.
Anyway, getting back to abstract art, the title of this post...we moderns tend to think of abstract art as a contemporary art movement arriving on the scene quite recently. But nay, not so! Abstraction has been around for, oh, about several hundred thousand years. Maybe more. As Bahn notes, "Apparently non-figurative art -- motifs which convey nothing to our eyes other than patterning -- has existed from the beginning: indeed, it often dominates the Palaeolithic period and its study is one of the long-neglected challenges of archaeology." The book has the photos to prove our earliest ancestors weren't entirely hung up on creating images of bison or people or birds on their cliffs and cave walls. Nope, "modern" art was being made even way back then, in the form of grids, lines, circular designs and other patterns or shapes whose messages or meanings, if they had any, are now lost to us.
Whether any of these markings -- representational or non-representational -- were regarded as "art" or something more functional by their makers still begs answers as well. But the fact remains: the earliest peoples created an abundance of non-representational carvings and drawings in their respective environments a very, very long time ago. I find it rather nice that "abstract art" can claim such an impressive history. Next time someone disdainfully wrinkles up their nose and states that abstraction is nothing more than "modern nonsense," I shall politely inform them that abstraction pre-dates Socrates and Jesus by millions of years. And now, if you'll kindly excuse me, it's time to go feed the trilobites.