Understanding Art Is Not Hard: It’s About Letting Go
Why do we think that looking at art is difficult? Is it because art has an aura of mystery or even deliberate complexity?
Certainly, some instances of contemporary art can seem obscure and impenetrable. Traditional art can appear difficult in other ways: old paintings with antique subjects and symbols that appear to require specialist knowledge to interpret.
In this way, art can feel beguiling. Faced with objects we have trouble in reading, we tend to look for conventional hallmarks of quality as obvious signposts to meaning. If traditional art can be enjoyed then it tends to be for the technical skill of the artist. Meanwhile, more modern forms like abstract and conceptual art — lacking the same signs of technical acumen — can be all too easily disregarded as nonsense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to argue in defence of some instance of modern art after somebody has told me their “child could make that.”
In my experience, what tends to be going on in conversations like this is that the person feels a lurking suspicion that the artwork is trying to fool them in some way. Questions like, “What is it for? What does it mean? What am I actually supposed to see?” disguise a deeper mistrust of the exalted status of art.
Galleries don’t always help in this regard. When we walk into the halls of a museum and see the rooms filled with artworks, it can sometimes feel like the art has indeed reached a plateau of perfection. Or at least, that’s the message we’re being given. Objects as hallowed as this, with security lasers and multi-million dollar price tags — not to mention the libraries of books written about them — give the impression of having been formed with all of the open-ended questions answered. In this situation, we don’t imagine that there is any room for our own personal response, especially one that is a bit unsure of itself.
But I think it’s important to remember that art is nothing like a science and that these artworks were not made in the cocoon of apparent perfection. They were made in crusty, cluttered, paint-spattered workshops by people who, more often than not, were not famous or rich at the time, people who made their art in wobbly obedience to their creative urge.
And this is how I believe we should approach art: alongside the artist, looking over their shoulder, hoping they will succeed (when in fact failure is an ever-present possibility. Many artists experience it all the time. I recently read about the British painter Francis Bacon, who after his death in 1992, left behind a studio with almost one hundred slashed or destroyed canvases that he viewed as failures.)
It is a cliche and perhaps something of a myth to say that all art is about feeling and expression, yet from the point of view of the spectator, it is never a bad place to start: Qualities of colour, texture of brushstroke, the heft and sway of composition, the slenderness or thickness of a line, elements of contrast, weight, size, boldness, fragility; these are the attributes that the artist plays with, utilises like tools, and eventually finds their satisfaction through.
It is enough, then, to approach a work of art with one’s senses open and ready. Yes, there is bound to be more to learn in the pages of the exhibition guide, but I guarantee you that the most substantial moments of engagement you have with a work of art will be those where you have looked and discovered for yourself.
The barriers to any work of art are removed when you make that first personal connection. And that begins with letting go and looking.
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