As you can see from the images below, both abstract and figurative forms of representation existed in various cultures since ancient times. The approach selected by the artist depended on their final goal or intent. Sometimes, abstraction works best to express an idea and, at other times, figurative representations are more effective.
Think about it: In what situation would an abstract representation be more effective than a figurative, or realistic depiction?
Moche Portrait Vessel, Ca. 100 BCE-700 CE
Musée du Quai Branly
All T'oqapu Tunic
Inka, Late Horizon
Dumbarton Oaks Library
Mask called “Obalufon,” 14th-early 15th century Nigeria (Ife)
Museum for African Art/Fundación Marcelino Botín/© National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria
Photo by: Karin L. Willis
Helmet Mask, early 20th Century
Wood, pigment, fiber
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Eiteljorg
Old Woman Complaining to Sultan Sanjar, from the Khamsa of Nizami
1539-43, border replaced in the 17th c.
Detail from Imam Mosque, 1611-1629