In literature, abstract imagery is language that portrays sensations or experiences that have no physical parallel, such as ideas, concepts, or emotions. It is distinct from concrete imagery, which describes physical objects and sensations like colors, sounds, and shapes. This is different from abstract visual art, although abstract art and abstract imagery in literature share a common motivation: to express something that cannot be perceived by visual or sensory means. While most people will interpret the concrete word “yellow” in generally the same way, for example, each person will react in a different way to the word “unnatural.” The challenge for the artist or writer is to convey an abstract idea in a way that will convey the intended effect to most or all of the audience.
Language is a way of sharing experiences and ideas, bridging the gap between individuals who have different outlooks and backgrounds. Things from the physical world are relatively simple to express; most people can visualize concepts such as “pyramid,” “woman,” and “alligator” with little effort. Abstract concepts, however, are more difficult. The concepts “impressive,” “pretty,” and “scary,” for example, are subjective judgments that each person will interpret differently. A writer trying to convey these concepts may need to choose different or additional words to create the intended effect.
Abstract imagery attempts to describe the vast expanse of human experience that is not limited to the physical world. This can include concepts such as “infinity” and “zero,” shared ideas such as “freedom” and “reason,” and experiences like “death” and “elation.” Despite being universal concepts, no universally recognized image or sensation exists to describe them. Informational writers, like journalists and scientists, must use precise language to describe abstract concepts accurately. Persuasive writers, such as novelists, have a different challenge: to convey their characters’ abstract experiences and emotions so that readers can understand and even sympathize with them.
The word “abstract” is often used to describe the visual art movements of the 20th century, such as abstract expressionism. Painters and other artists dispensed with representational techniques, creating images that seemingly had little to no connection with reality. It could be said that their motivation was to express concepts and experiences that had no visual parallel, similar to the use of abstract imagery in literature. Written language has an advantage over visual art in these cases; a writer wishing to express sadness can use words like “melancholy,” “grief,” or “depression,” modifying them with adjectives and other descriptive terms. A painter wishing to express sadness as a concept has no such reliable techniques to fall back on.
This is not to say that abstract imagery in visual art is necessarily random, however. Abstract art pioneers like Wassily Kandinsky explored the idea that some colors, shapes, and lines might convey concepts that had no corresponding physical image. Jagged lines, for example, could portray disorder or chaos by suggesting broken glass, even if the audience was consciously unaware of the connection. During the same era, early comics artists began using their own form of abstract imagery on the page. The word balloon, for example, has become a widely recognized symbol for the non-visual concept of speech, even outside the field of comics.