How to Deal with Art

Emergency Instructions

October 24, 2004

Sooner or later everyone is bound to run into art of one sort or another. Surprisingly large number of us are quite unprepared to deal with the situation. Since contact with art, intentional or not, has become universal and too often a bewildering experience, it's high time the public was given at least rudimentary instruction on how to behave when confronted with an art object. Here are some basic guidelines. More extensive treatment of the subject is available on the Web. Just google "art" and step back.

Consideration #1: What did you expect?

I mean, did you have any preconceived ideas about art generally or the object in question in particular? Have you ever heard of it, read reviews, or know something about the artist? In other words, what historical baggage (including your personal weltanschau) are you bringing to your experience of the art object?

Depending on your views and expectations, and on what you know or don't know, the art object may  surprise, excite, disappoint, disgust, outrage, please, puzzle or totally bore you. I suggest that unless you are an art critic or an art historian, the optimal strategy for a first time contact may be to approach the object without any expectations, with the innocence of admitted or presumed total ignorance. 

Consideration #2: Is what you see what you get?

Good question. With visual arts, the first impression is, of course, what you actually see. It could be all there is to it, but it almost never is.

First of all, what you do see is what you pay attention to. You never see the whole thing all at once exactly as it really is. On a first look you miss a lot of detail that may or may not be important. You get only a hazy general impression. Then, depending on your interest and on how much time you spend with the object, you begin to learn things about it that were not immediately obvious, things that possibly mean something to you - or not.

It's like a crime investigation. The art object is the evidence. Now you have to discover the perpetrator's motives and methods. The clues may be subtle and elusive. Beware jumping to unwarranted conclusions! These things have to be handled delicately.

That is, of course, if you believe the case is worth your time. The first look may convince you otherwise, that there is nothing of interest here, or, worse, that the object is repulsive and unpleasant and you'd rather not spend any time with it at all. Whatever the case, the fundamental question that has to be answered is: assuming there is more to the art object than meets the eye, should you bother to try to discover what that more might be? Clearly, you don't have to. Still, you might be curious about it. Why?

Well, one good answer might be that you like solving puzzles. You enjoy detective work for its own sake. And that's just fine. Enjoy!

Another answer might be that you're a seeker after truth and for some reason you believe that discovering the art object's meaning (if any) might lead you closer to the truth. There is a general presumption that art is about truth, that it is always, in some way, a representation of reality. Of course there are no grounds for this belief. What you actually see is real enough, what it means is another matter. Art does usually signify some truth about the artist's own experience and beliefs.To the extent that it does this in a comprehensible way, your experience of the art object might contribute to your understanding if not of the world in general, at least of the world of the artist's experience. Should this happen, the object's existence would be justified.

Yet another answer might be that by studying the art object you can discover the art of it - the artificial structure of ideas characterized by a complex and satisfying order, with admirable symmetry, rhythm, ingenuity and imaginative variety. It's not a question of truth even though the structure might be suggestive of the natural order of the experienced world. Call it enjoyment of art for it's own sake.

Consideration #3: OK, you see it but it still means nothing to you

The problem is that art is both an object and a symbolic language. As a direct visual experience it may or may not be beautiful or exciting or interesting, regardless of whether it is an abstract structure of form, color,  texture and space or a more or less realistic representation of the world of experience. As a language, however, an art object is a collection of symbols assembled together like words according to some gramatical rules to form meaningful sentences. If the artist does not use symbols and rules that are familiar to you, as far as you are concerned it is a foreign language.

There are two possibilities here: The artist may be inventing a symbolic language on the fly, based on her own personal associations of ideas, feelings and images. It is very often the case that the artist is struggling to express something that is almost inexpressible, that is not clear even to herself: some feeling or vision, very real yet imperfectly understood. She may be trying to engage your imagination, in effect saying "help me here, work with me; try to understand what I'm trying to tell you". In this case you may need to know something about the artist and the circumstances of the creation of the art object before you can hope to understand what's going on here. It's your call whether it's worth the effort.

The other possibility is that the artist is using an arcane symbolic language accessible only to the insiders of the art world: the art critics, the art historians, the art dealers, the major art collectors and those artists who have the educational background required. Much of the art that is hanging in the museums and in homes of wealthy art collectors falls into this category. This is not (even when it is sometimes intended to be) popular art. It is akin to higher mathematics or rocket science. You need an art degree from an accredited school to even think of approaching this art with any kind of real comprehension. Exposure to this kind of art can be traumatic or it may turn you off, especially when the experts are telling you what a great piece of art this is while you gaze at it feeling like a dumbo because it does absolutely nothing for you. Of course, not wanting to appear stupid you don't say anything. You may even hang a reproduction in your living room, just because you've been told it is great art. A classic case of the emperor sitting there stark naked and getting away with it.

So what should you do? Same thing you do about the theory of relativity. Take the expert's word for it and go see something else, something that means something to you or at least is a joy to look at. Or, if you absolutely must know what this is all about, go get yourself a Masters in Art History. (Fair warning: you may be disappointed - or perhaps not).

For completeness' sake, I should note here that sometimes incomprehensible art may actually mean nothing.

Paul Wyszkowski