Here's A Secret About Contemporary Art: You Don't Actually Have To Like It
Sydney Morning Herald
Monday June 9, 2008
Visiting a gallery on a long weekend afternoon is a pleasant experience. Gallery bookshops are great for browsing and you can enjoy a coffee on a terrace with a city view. For many people the only problem is the art. As a friend recently complained to me he just didn't "get" most of it - too obscure, difficult or just plain ugly. So I told him the truth. Art isn't always made with an audience in mind and some of it is wilfully obscure. And not all art is made for everyone. You don't expect to walk into a music shop and like everything do you? If you hate something or love it just as much, that's OK, because having a response is actually the first step to "getting it".But it would be a mistake to think that just because you've accepted your first response as valid that that's the end of the story. In our visual culture an immediate reaction is too often mistaken for a qualitative response - this song is great, that movie stank, that artwork left me cold. So much of how we consume culture is dominated by star rating guides, critic's picks and lifestyle recommendations. But if you think cinema, music and art are meant to provide something more meaningful than diverting entertainment, then you'd agree a more considered response is required. Walking through a gallery shouldn't be the same sort of visual experience as flipping through a magazine.One of the best ways to learn about contemporary art is also one of the easiest things you can do. Look at it. That might seem obvious but, the more you look, the more you learn. It's a process of osmosis where unfamiliar forms and ideas slowly sink in and after a while even the more outlandish seeming artworks begin to have a context. It's incredible that some people believe that art should be immediately accessible and that anything a bit difficult is to be ignored and reviled. Some of the best experiences anyone can have with art are often the things that seem the most challenging.Appreciating art is a slow process. The way art is displayed in galleries and museums is usually just a lot of things hung on walls. Although this approach to looking at art seems familiar it's easy to just zoom past at a steady walking pace. Most galleries provide seating and it's there for a reason. I guarantee you, the longer you sit and look at something the more value you'll get out of the experience. One my art teachers once gave me some great advice for looking at big exhibitions. Trust your first impressions, she said, then go back for another look. Once you're there, sitting or standing front of a work, a handy rule of evaluating it is to try and see if you can discover something in the work that didn't seem to be there at first glance. If your reaction to the work has changed, or the art itself seems to contain more, it's likely you're having a genuinely involving art experience.Ironically, most people feel that they already know enough about art to appreciate whether something is beautiful or ugly, but what most people assume is that art is ugly by accident. That's not so. There is an intention behind art, be it a painting of a bowl of fruit or a room hung with thousands of brightly coloured balls. Works of art are the end result of a process of thinking about how things are put together. If it looks ugly it is because the artist made a decision to make it that way. Even if the artist genuinely believes that something is beautiful but to you looks ugly, you have to at least ask - why? Asking questions about art changes the relationship between the viewer and the artwork from one of passive reception to one of engagement. Just as a great movie can leave you thinking about it days or even years later, or how a difficult CD might be a grower on repeated listens, so too a work of art can have far more depth and meaning than you first thought. Knowing what you like in art is great. Most people don't actually know what they like. But remember, it's only the first step.