Wednesday, February 20, 2013

For those who don't "get" art

 Come Venice Biennale every year, across the world and more such, many popular fora get flooded with jokes on art and how many sensible, common people with little or no education in fine art (or aesthetics) don't get what's happening. It ends in whimpers from many within the art community and outside. I've been dealing with this question myself and in this post, I will address two issues, one of personal taste and the other, what you should look for in art.

Just a line before I start. You might be curious who I am, what my authority on the topic is and so on. I also find it useful to explain my vantage point because it will help you empathize and stay with my argument. I have received formal education in literature, psychology and media studies and my first encounter with (fine) art theory was in my graduate programme. From then on, I studied visual art, theater and performance and cinema. As you can see, most of these disciplines that I've had the chance to dip my fingers in, have been accused of bull shitting. In other words, it is a common claim that many people do not understand what literature, poetry, psychology, media theory, cinema and visual art produce. So, basically this question haunts me every single day while I try to produce research on these subjects and make truth value claims. I am/was as skeptical as you might be at some point.

Setting the ground:

Have a look at this: I'm Sick Of Pretending: I Don't "Get" Art | VICE United Kingdom
Is this how you feel? Does this post echo your sentiments and also reflect the rubbish you encounter at art galleries, fairs and museums? Good, then we are on the same page. The student here claims to be an art student and has done all kinds of things to participate in the contemporary art culture but simply fails to "get it"! This tells us that she, just like you and I, has a personal taste. She has an opinion on what is pretty and what is ugly or what moves her heart and what doesn't. This is true for all of us. Most of the times when someone calls you Philistine (a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts) you quickly bounce back and say, "I know what's pretty and what's not." The question to be asked is, is all art pretty? Not necessarily. Does art have a function? Of course it does. Art can heal, it can inspire social change, it can educate people (the language of the image precedes the written word in fact), art can earn money in modern societies (so it can feed people too) and art can be as dangerous as 'the bomb'.

If you are wondering why I am talking of personal taste and the function of art, most of us go to look at art and ask these questions. We ask why red and blue, why metal and glass, what is this object trying to "do" and what is its meaning (in the functional sense; like bridges are meant to connect, food is meant to feed and art?). Of course, these questions come after your first impression (where personal taste comes in). What I am asking of you is to ask a more abstract question of art. And, this is my strategy to know "good"/inspiring art from bad/pretentious/uninspiring art.
Disclaimer: Just like you may not appreciate beer, different cuisines, the complexity of a new sport, dance or find a cultural ritual absolutely absurd, anything without a historical context can seem bizarre. So, before you write it off, read up a little around it. For example, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain or Rauschenberg's Black Painting may seem unworthy of being masterpieces to you. However, if you knew that Duchamp deliberately used a urinal to make fun of high art monopoly and Rauschenberg wanted to explore nature's essence by simply painting a canvas black you might warm up to them, no? I could go on about what makes us like popular art (different for everyone) but will save that for later. 
So, to give you my final strategy to engage with art works or performances, talk to the art. Ask the art object if it represents or acts. Simply put, in my opinion, a photograph of a woman rubbing money on her vagina is of less artistic value or maybe none as compared to video of women in burqa and hot pants in France walking on the street to oppose the Hijab ban.[5] If you see, while both instances seem like "shocking" acts by women, the first may not be disrupting, talking back or breaking stereotypes and its shock value merely relies on the nudity element or the obvious statement it makes. The second instance becomes interesting for me, not because of what it has inherently but for what it does to the society around. That is, to me, the crucial line between inspiring and 'dead' art. Of course, people make pretty, shocking, new things that may not be performing this disruptive function. And, you can like that too.
If you liked my argument but wish I could substantiate it with more examples, let me tell you about John Cage and his piece 4'33''. John Cage, a famous music composer produced a 4 minute piece which was completely silent. Yes, you would ask - where is the music? Use my strategy, ask what the piece/artist is trying to do, not what it seems like (not music or noise or silence). What Cage claimed his piece was trying to do is to assert that any sound is music, including the sound of silence.

Apologies for the longish post, but I hope this gives you more confidence to walk into a gallery and ask again - is this art?