How to engage with art

It is hard to appreciate art because we don’t really value the ephemeral so much. I notice it at concerts, people taking photographs and filming the acts on their little phones. Sadly, in the dark, these images are of poor quality – you can’t make out anything – and the sound is usually tinny. Even though I doubt the records we make are revisited very often, they’re somehow important. We know our memory fails. We want to prove to the world that we were there.

But my experience of true appreciation involves embracing the ephemeral. This might be the one and only time you ever see the Mona Lisa in person. You might never get around to rereading Lolita. This might be the last concert Mick Jagger ever gives before he dies (haha, unlikely). The point of effective art is that it, if you pay enough attention, it takes you to a place of transcendence.

van goughYou can’t live in such a place, although it would be nice to do so. It would be overwhelming. I recently saw Van Gogh’s first self-portrait after he cut off his own ear. I wondered if inscribed in the detail was hope for the future, or a devastating hopelessness. I stared into his stylised eyes, I don’t know how long for, and decided that there was resolve there. Emotion welled up, I felt a pulling sensation in my navel. There was an attachment to the painter, I felt I had received a silent missive from him. I’m glad that I had that experience, but I’m also glad that it is over. It’s more special that way.

I rarely get to such a place in a gallery, or at a concert. I’m so fearful that it’s about to end that it never really happens. You can never feel transcendence if your sole focus is on reproducing it.

Another hurdle to art appreciation is the feeling of intimidation. This is especially problematic with ‘high art’. You go to galleries and you still ask, ‘why is this even art? I don’t understand!’ You go to the opera and they sing in a language that isn’t yours and lord knows what’s going on. You drink some wine and all that’s there is the taste of rotting grapes, you don’t know anything of this ‘floral notes’ stuff.

The second step to appreciating art is to trust yourself. You don’t need an art history or literature or music degree to take something from art. You don’t have to do a wine appreciation course. Education helps orient your tastes in a sense, you learn certain things to look out for, the names for different artistic trends and movements, etc. You don’t need an education to figure out how something makes you feel. Also, because you live in the world you do have a background of preferences and experiences that helps you understand the things in front of you. Your understanding may not be what the critics say or what the artist intended. That’s okay. We face art alone and it affects us uniquely.

But while it is fundamental, that trust also must be tempered. Don’t dismiss art out of hand if you don’t ‘get’ it. Somebody probably worked hard on that. Ask someone to explain it to you, look it up on Google, or even just have a think about it. It may still be shit, that is potentially a worthy conclusion, but double-check first.

The next step is optional. Art can sometimes be so intimidating that it makes us feel like we can never offer anything to the world of importance. Creative people respond to art in creative ways (anything from fanart/fanfiction to an imitation of the artist’s methods to just being otherwise inspired) and it is important to follow that feeling, even if you do end up producing something you view to be inferior. You are not just a receiver of culture; you can also be a producer. The apex of art appreciation is feeling as though you are part of it to some degree, when it’s not just something artists do, but something we do as humans.

One Comment

  1. This is such an important and well written article and really made me rethink how i approach art. Thank you so much

    Liked by 1 person

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