Saturday, 22 February 2014



Imagine waking up one morning, walking into your kitchen and finding the table set with your favorite breakfast, beautifully laid out and ready for you to enjoy. What would be your first reaction? Delight? Surprise? Curiosity? Gratitude? And what about when you started eating the food? Would you be savoring its flavors? Would you enjoy the taste?

Or, would the sight of this unforeseen setup stop you dead in your tracks, even preventing you from crossing the kitchen’s threshold? Would you be wondering who prepared the breakfast? What their motivation was? What recipe they followed? How they learned to cook? Where they sourced the ingredients? What other breakfasts they prepared? Who else prepared breakfasts? What they were trying to tell you by making breakfast for you? And would your inability to answer all of these questions put you off so much that you wouldn’t even sit down and eat?

The above scenario might sound very far-fetched and contrived - and it is! - but I’d like to argue that it is an analogy1 of how a growing number of my friends approach art. And I don’t mean to ridicule them here at all - their approach is eminently reasonable, but just to share my own experience2 of relating to art and appreciating it,3 that side-steps (but in some cases defers) what I see as my friends’ inhibitors to sharing in the same enjoyment that I receive.

Over the last couple of years I have, on separate occasions, visited galleries with close friends and have spent some time discussing questions like: “What did the artist want to say with this piece?,” “Is this really art?,” “What do you see in this?” and “What do you know about this artist / the period / the technique / etc.?” As far as I can, I try to dismiss such questions, since I believe them all to be of secondary importance at best.

In the first instance, I find that it pays to try and allow for an encounter between me and a piece of art, which is actually an encounter with a person - its creator - by proxy. And just like when being in the presence of another person, this is all about emptying myself of expectations, prejudices, stereotypes and allowing for the other to express themselves and speak to me. In some cases a connection is established - and it is worth letting it breathe before proceeding to anything else - while in others not - the same applies for art as for people. As Grayson Perry put it - “you don’t have to like it all.”

Second, in case a connection is in place - in case a piece of art has elicited a reaction from me, I can reflect on it and make its effects on me explicit to myself. I can think about how this piece of art fits into my world - what it makes me feel, think, remember, wish for, ...

Third, I can share my experience of this encounter with someone else, who is there with me, whom I speak or write to later, ... And this sharing can also be in the form of creating new art, that others can engage with without my immediate presence.

And, fourth, I may be compelled to learn more about the piece, it’s author, the technique, it’s context, it’s symbolism, it’s history, which in turn can allow for the sequence to restart and to take a different course, compared to this first, “uninformed” encounter.

A key idea here, at least one that helps me engage with a piece of art, is also to realize that not everything has a verbal equivalent - not everything is just an alternative to verbalized thought and the resolution of every encounter is not a verbalized thought. When looking at a painting by Paul Klee (to give a recent example), my great friend NP asked me: “What was he thinking when he painted this?” To which I hesitatingly and apologetically replied “This!,” while pointing at the painting. I didn’t believe that it was a visual translation of preexisting verbalized thought any more than a piece of music is. And while the answer was awkward, I believed it to be correct. Certainly, words can be said in response to visual art, but - at least in the case of great art, I don’t believe any amount of words can fully capture it, just like they couldn’t a person, whose expression art is.

Finally, I would also like to anticipate a likely objection: “Alright, what you say may be OK, but it doesn’t lead to an understanding of what the artist wanted to say - only to a subjective and potentially unrelated experience by a viewer. Aren’t you missing the point?” Here I’d like to argue that two scenarios are possible: first, that the artist wasn’t trying to communicate - they were “only” expressing themselves (if they wanted to communicate verbal content, they could have used more unambiguous means), in which case a quest to identify a message is futile and, second, that the artist was well aware of the the inherent disjointedness of the process, where the content they intended to embody in a piece of art may not be accessible to some (or even any) viewer, in which case an effort to cross the chasm, that is the piece of art itself, is likely to have arbitrary success.

A third scenario is possible though, I hear you say: that the artist has also written or spoken about what their intentions were when creating a piece. Then, if I am unaware of this proclamation, my viewing of their work will be incomplete and my lack of knowledge an obstacle to getting what they intended by their work. That may well be true, but even if it is, this only impacts the fourth stage of engaging with a piece of art as outlined above - a risk I am happy to take, especially since most artists I know of detested or flatly refused supplying such crutches for the viewing of their work.

1 Please note a key feature of analogy, which is its incompleteness - I don’t mean to suggest that art is the same as food (although it can have a nourishing effect) and I am intentionally staying away from the trap of trying to define what art is - only to argue that there may be a particular way to engage with it.
2 I am making no claims of universality or excellence of method here - this is only my attempt at introspection and sharing of what goes on when I come across a piece of art, in case it may be of some interest or help to someone else.
3 Just a word of warning - if you google “appreciating art,” you are far more likely to find junk - including statements like: “Visiting an art gallery or museum is a low-cost way to spend time with friends or a date.” or “Appreciating art is very easy once you understand art history.” from sources I won’t even link to ...