You've seen it before. The globby, dribbly "masterpiece" work of abstract art that looks as if your dog could've painted it with mud and a chewed crayon. "What's so special about this?" you may have thought. Perhaps you may have ranted on the sale price of some of those paintings. After all, a Pollock was recently sold for about $140 million, and that was merely paint splotches on canvas.
Abstract art has the reputation of being too simple, craft-less, and confusing. And it's true in a sense; abstract art does seem to lack the skill of a Michelangelo and Da Vinci piece. There are few, if any, recognizable elements one would expect in a painting: trees, people, animals, and the like. There's no way to quickly look at the painting and explain what it is about, which is how most of us interpret art.
So then, how does one understand abstract art?
First, it is helpful to change your perspective on art interpretation. By very definition, abstract art is not seeking to represent reality. So when viewing a piece of abstract art, it is often unhelpful to ask "What is this a painting of?" or "What's this about?"
Perhaps on the surface you may be able to find a recognizable shape in the artwork, just as you may find a shape while watching clouds in the sky. But that isn't the purpose of the art. There is a high probability that the artist wasn't setting out to paint a picture of a dog- but then again, maybe she was. That's why it is helpful to find out information about the artist. What is her other work like? When did he paint this? Was she involved in a particular social movement? Is this painting part of a series, or does it stand alone? Knowing some background of who was painting this, and when, why, and in response to what can hold the key to "understanding" what the work means.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the experience of viewing abstract art is meant to be different than viewing other art. It is meant to be more of an emotional experience than a rational one. To understand abstract art, you must go through a different process than you do with other paintings. So think: How do the colours make me feel? Sad? Happy? Anxious? Gloomy? What about their placement on the canvas and in relation to each other? How does that make me feel? Calm? Chaotic? Neutral? Stressed? What kinds of textures are present? Is it rough? Shiny? Precise? Put yourself into the piece, and try to make it into an experience. Sometimes feelings are difficult to express: they can be illusive, hard to pin down, tough to describe. Abstract art can be an attempt at capturing those feelings in a tangible way.
As with any artwork, though perhaps more so in abstract art, the viewer is meant to have a dialogue with the piece. Remember, there is no "right" or "wrong" answer. Even if you do only look at the work, see a butterfly, and move on, you still had an experience. And that is a good thing.