Abstract art is now generally understood to mean art that does not depict objects in the natural world, but instead uses shapes and colours in a non-representational or non-objective way. In the early 20th century, the term was more often used to describe art, such as Cubist and Futurist art, that does represent the natural world, but does so by capturing something of its immutable intrinsic qualities rather than by imitating its external appearance. See Abstraction.
Abstract pattern making has an ancient history dating back to the earliest decorations on textiles, pottery and so on. However, the idea that the arrangement of shapes and colours is not simply to be understood as design, but as fine art dates from the nineteenth century when photography began to make the illustrative function of visual art obsolete. Even before the widespread use of photography some artists, such as James McNeill Whistler were placing greater emphasis on visual sensation than the depiction of objects. Whistler argued that art should concern itself with the harmonious arrangement of colours, just as music deals with the harmonious arrangement of sounds. Whistler's painting Nocturne in Black and Gold (1875) is often seen as a major move towards abstraction. Later artists such as Wassily Kandinsky argued that modern science dealt with dynamic forces, revealing that matter was ultimately spiritual in character. Art should display the spiritual forces behind the visual world. Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich are generally seen as the first fully abstract artists. Kandinky's art is sometimes called 'soft edged', while Malevich's is 'hard edged'. This distinction is repeated in later abstract artists. The blurred, dynamic lines and colors used by Kandinsky developed into Abstract Expressionism, which the use of overlapping or interacting geometrical forms is found in the work of Piet Mondrian and many later artists such as the op artists of the 1960s.