What are the first words that come to your head when you hear the word art?
Beautiful? Old? Painstaking? Pretentious?
These words, along with so many others, used to flood through my head every time the topic of art came up in my presence. In the past, the belief I held was that art is something to be appreciated, conserved, and shown off, but it has developed into an association of art with the community that it is typically centered around. Art is more than something to hang on a wall to admire superficially and briefly. Art is meant to provoke thoughts, emotions, and conversation; it is meant to be seen as a reflection of not only the world around us but also ourselves. Art is best viewed by a diverse audience full of differing perspectives in regard to what is being presented. Yet many people’s first thoughts regarding art seem to be only those of beauty or pretension. So why is this, I assume, many people’s first association with art?
TV and movies always seem to depict artists as extreme eccentrics who behave in outrageous ways and justify their actions as all for the sake of artistry. Often, these scenes are shown in conjunction with the supporters of the arts. These supporters are usually financially and socially wealthy figures in society who drink red wine only from Bordeaux or Piedmont, and talk down to those wearing less than five karats. In these situations, the artists and their supporters are the sole people who seem to understand what each piece is about. But how could they? The piece they are looking at is just a blue canvas or some scribbles on a piece of paper that was torn up and glued back together. Can’t anyone do that? What is stopping someone like me, who has no formal art training and no real eye for art, from making something like that and calling it art? Society and the media’s impact on what art should and should not be has impacted the way we have viewed art for far too long.
The desire for rules and regulations around what art can be is deeply ingrained in Western society. The French Salon is one of the most famous examples of heavy regulations on art. The Salon originated in 1667, but the jury system of selection was introduced in 1748. Artists could display their works at these most prestigious Salons, but only if accepted by the jury. The Salon and the Royal Academies of Art in France and England were essentially the authorities of art. They had total dominion over what the public viewed as art, and artists who veered from what was popular were hard pressed to find patrons or supporters.
Aside from major media influence and the way our society has very long-standing written and unwritten rules about art, I think part of the disconnect between the artist and the viewer is that the artist is trying to convey human emotion through a physical medium. Since it is a human trying to express their own personal emotions or experiences, the meaning can become distorted or lost in translation. And of course, no matter how much the artist would like to be able to control the public’s perception of the art, it is impossible to manipulate a viewer’s impression of an art piece. If I were to take a picture of a man smiling and try to base it on a message of hope and happiness, someone could come along and see sadness in his eyes or expression and glean an entirely different meaning.
The problem lies in the human experience; we are all incredibly different. Our lived experiences, the ways we were raised, the places we grew up, all give us biases. This is another way to say that art is subjective. We all find meaning and purpose in different things. While some might find a photo of a flower striking or elegant, others might find it derivative or plain. It is because of this human nature that when something is created it can be seen by some as pretentious, a term which has unfortunately been firmly tethered to the art world.
The point I’m trying to make is that we need to veer away from the stereotypical “hoity-toity” attitude towards art. For a long time, art has been seen as a way for someone to elevate themselves above others through ownership or even knowledge of a famous piece, or because they see the “true meaning” behind it. While contribution to the arts is needed and admirable, the attitude of exclusion should be a thing of the past. Art cannot be defined or confined. If you feel connected to a piece or a piece evokes emotion from you, then you understand it.
As mentioned previously, human subjectivity is a marvelous facet of life that gives us the most wonderful opportunity to see something from multiple points of view. While there is the intention to make a piece that conveys a certain emotion, there are always going to be varying interpretations of the piece from different viewers of distinct backgrounds. That is something that should not be taken away from newcomers to the world of art. The stereotypical snobs in TV and movies bullied the inductees of the world of art for not seeing the “true meaning.”
But there is no true meaning…
Art is subjective…
During my first week here I was subject to one of our slow art days where one of our members, an intern, and I grabbed some chairs and started to analyze some of the photographs in our exhibitions. While waiting for the member to show up, the intern and I joked, laughing and over-analyzing the photograph to create outlandish meanings behind it. We acted like all those people that we saw in TV shows and had no concept of what each picture meant. When our exercise started, and we started to take the analysis a little more seriously, I saw perspectives that I hadn’t thought of and heard of experiences from the others that made me see the photo in a different light. I was relieved that, while the member was a photographer himself, he didn’t shoot down or discredit anything I said or related to.
It was refreshing.
I went into this situation where I thought the scene would be something based on the movies. In actuality, everyone listened to me and then offered their own opinions without arguing or making me feel inferior.
I think that is enough of my ramblings, but if there is anything I want you to get out of my self-indulgently verbose writing, it’s this.
Throw away your preconceived notions. Even if you don’t want to get into a deep analysis of each photograph that hangs on our walls, please use our space as a break from the normal. Everyone, every day, is rushing from place to place in their busy schedules, and art can be your way to disrupt that, a way to take even just a moment or two for reflection. There are no judgments or critiques here, just a bunch of enthusiasts that are trying their best to show the art form that they love most. Just slow down, and enjoy.