How do we look at and understand the art we see or the art we make?

Is the work:
Real? .
French painter Gustave Courbet felt that "realist" painting meant being true to one's own experiences. As opposed to "naturalism" which refers to an artist's fidelity to what she sees (or to "nature").

[Robert Atkins, ArtSpeak (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990), p.140.]
Abstract? .
"Abstract" may also be regarded as a verb--an artist may abstract something she sees before her. That is, she may draw on something "real" as a source of inspiration or subject matter without feeling the need to render what she sees in a naturalistic way.

For example, American painter Richard Diebenkorn based many of his abstract paintings on the landscape. He described his process: "I began to feel that what I was really up to in painting, what I enjoyed almost exclusively, was altering--changing what was before me--by way of subtraction or juxtaposition or superimposition of different ideas."

[quoted in Jane Livingston, "The Art of Richard Diebenkorn" in The Art of Richard Diebenkorn (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with the University of California Press, 1997), p.72.]

Non Objective? .
While non-objective work may, at times, look like abstract work, it is truly "abstract" in that it has no basis in what the artist physically sees before her. The work may develop completely from intuition or may correspond to some experience not dependent upon a visual relationship with an object or objects.

The non-objective may reflect an artist's accumulated life experiences combined with his crafting sensibilities, as is the case with sculptor Martin Puryear. Critic Ann Morgan describes his work: "He recharges forms and meanings from the past with sophistication and elegance, investing each synthesis with his own civilized and passionate sensibility--an introspective self-sufficiency entwined with a romantic attraction to the unknowable, to feeling, and to nature."

[quoted in Terry Barrett, Criticizing Art, Understanding the Contemporary, 2nd ed. (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000), p.134.]