Imagine you are living 100+ years ago. Let's think about the arts as an industry. The top Fine Arts forms were:
- Performing Arts - Theater/Dance
- Visual Arts - Painting/Sculpture/Illustration
Now let's take one at a time (rather quickly) to find our answer.
- Literature: Imagine reading the best seller in fictional literature without illustration or soundtrack, etc. just by the words alone on the page, you laugh out loud in one chapter and then cry only moments later with the power of the story alone. The words stand alone.
- Music: Although you could go to an opera and hear a narrative story and be moved, you could also go to the orchestra and without any story or context at all, the sound/music/orchestra alone could move you to tears one moment and then make your heart race with excitement the next as music builds. The music stands alone.
- Performing Arts: You could watch a play at the local theater, which would inevitably be the manifestation of a writer's story, but you could also see the ballet and with their movement alone experience a wide range of emotions. The movement of dance stands alone.
- Visual Arts: Whether it be the paintings on the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel, the sculptures at the Vatican, the local posters in the store window, The Landscape or figure paintings on the museum walls, the illustrations printed on and in books and newspapers, the common denominator is this... They all point your mind elsewhere! What? What does that mean? Its easy to explain. The iconography/art of the Renaissance era existed because priests in that day taught in latin, not the language of the common person (vernacular) so the good local catholics who went to mass did not (for the most part) understand what was being taught. Also most commoners were unable to read. As a result of needing effective teaching aids, the paintings and sculptures served as a picture book visually illustrating the stories of the Bible in a world where such stories were hard to learn about directly from Biblical sources. Moving on to landscape paintings, when you see a landscape painting, it immediately takes you away from the painting and into the landscape thereby acting as a transporter of the mind to a new location. Skilled artists able to render well, rarely heard the comment "Oh that color and brush stroke of that branch (lake, mountain, cloud, whatever) just moves me to tears. And those paintings that did move people to tears or some other emotional experience did so as a result of illustrating an emotional narrative (telling an emotional story) and by doing so once again took the viewer away from the painting mentally and into the story (written or spoken word) within their minds. Book illustrations, product advertisements, etc. did the same thing. Essentially pictures (visual art) were the lesser assistant to greater forms of fine art typically supporting literature to more effectively tell a story. Visual art did not stand alone to create a moving experience for the viewer.
"Wassily Kandinsky famously experienced an epiphany on seeing a painting of haystacks by Monet in 1896.
He did not recognize the subject but was moved by the arrangement of colors. This led him to the conclusion that color and form alone could have a powerful effect. Kandinsky had a condition called synesthesia, a confusion of the senses which allowed him to see colors when listening to music. Like music, his abstract paintings tried to express emotional and spiritual truths." (source BBC)
At this time traditional portrait and landscape (among other subjects) painters were experiencing competition from the newly popular camera. Now machines could surpass in moments what it would take a skilled artist to achieve in countless hours of labor. And in most cases artists couldn't achieve the quality of representation of a camera and its subsequent image.
Mark Rothko's paintings: "These feature soft-edged blocks of color arranged against a saturated background. Despite being influenced by the work of Matisse and early abstract artists such as Klee, Rothko rejected the idea that he was an abstract artist, saying, “I'm not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on.” (Source BBC)
"We've got machines to represent objects... I want to depict what's inside a person." - Jackson Pollock (Source BBC)
I could go on, but to sum up why abstract art exists, is to elevate the existence of visual art from playing a supporting role to being the point. So that a painting can be viewed for what it is and what it looks like - how it makes someone feel - all the while the viewer's mind is still presently on the painting, including the marks, the color, texture, contrast, pattern, and overall energy of the work. At the end of the day, you should be able to strip away a story, background sounds, smells, tastes, and the way it could even feel to the touch. Just the visual production in all its complexities or simplicities can trigger some emotional response within you as the viewer, and that is something special. That experience is something artists of all walks of life strive for. The artist's ability to emotionally move a viewer by his/her work, without needing to illustrate a narrative, was game changing in the world of visual arts. Now in 2016, the way we define and perceive art is a far cry different than in centuries past.
***personal note: just because a work of art qualifies as abstract art or realism, etc. doesn't mean it is good art. It could be good or it could be bad. So you don't have to feel like their is something wrong with you if you don't like or get it. Art is purely subjective. Education will change the way we see art, but beauty to one is not the same to another and in our art culture many artists don't even try to make beauty, they're expressing an alternative emotion. Shock art, for instance, seeks to shake you and when you are disturbed, it is technically very successful art.