"That’s crap," "I don’t get it," and Other Things People Say When Looking at Art

Begin rant–

Having perused many art galleries in my day, I have had the opportunity to not only view some great works of art, but also inadvertently witness the reactions to art that many individuals have.  In fact, there have been occasions when I’ve spent far more time observing unwary museum-goers instead of focusing on the art that I came to see. 

Many people seem to have found their way into the museum out of an obligatory sense to participate in a cultural experience but, unfortunately, do not necessarily have the tools to help them fully participate in that experience.  I’ve often wondered why this is.  Every adult there, presumably, has obtained an education, probably public, and were compulsorily exposed to some form of an art program.  It would be reasonable to assume that they were given the tools to understand not only mimetic forms of art but the more abstract and even non-objective forms as well.  However, the truth of the matter is that most art programs don’t cover how to observe and interpret the visual arts in as much of an in-depth a manner as, say, the schools cover mathematics or reading.  Viewing art, particularly modern and post-modern art, is as much an exegetical experience as reading works of literature; however, the average 27.2 seconds most people spend on viewing a piece of art doesn’t lend itself to establishing a meaningful relationship with what the artist has created.

I think that many people don’t spend much time viewing modern and post-modern art for numerous reasons, but one of the primary reasons is that they simply may not know how to.  People identify with what they can recognize–in art, this often means that naturalistic and representational works often win favor because the content is readily identifiable.  Ask people what their favorite artists are and they’ll comeback with Monet, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Renoir etc.  Colors that excite and objects or people that are well rendered are never out of favor *cough*Kincaide*cough* There is certainly nothing wrong with such work but it closes off a means of experiencing the world that can only be communicated via the means, methods, and materials that many post-modern artists utilize.  It is akin to not reading any novel produced after, say, 1890.  Yes, there was some fantastic literature produced prior to 1890, but a tremendous amount of significant work has been crafted afterwards as well.


“Pssst. Maybe if we stand here long enough people will think we understand this.”


Art speaks about our community, our society, and our world in a way that words cannot.  I think that somehow along the way this has been forgotten or deliberately dismissed–although I can’t say why, well I guess I could try but it would take more space than I have here.  It is certainly not uncommon for art to be viewed as expendable within the confines of budgetary considerations.  Art is simply not viewed to be as practical as infrastructure or defense and when viewed in an either/or manner then, yes, it does make sense that art is lower on the hierarchy of needs. 
What I advocate is an integral and symbiotic view of art.  Many indigenous cultures do not have a separate word for “art” as what they create is a necessary extension of their social identity not something that is “separate” from them.  I highly doubt that we in American culture will ever view art as an integral expression of our identity since our tendency to compartmentalize is well established, but certainly steps can be taken to integrate art into our cultural milieu.
So, how can this be accomplished?  Through education.  It will be a slow process but many art education programs are currently promoting the arts more aggressively than before and, more importantly, stressing the critical analysis skills necessary to transcend the traditional barriers that existed between academic subjects.  I think this facilitates–or will come to facilitate–a perspective of the arts that is more flattering than we have had in the past.  Many art rooms have been viewed as a place where students can come to play–which, don’t get me wrong, play certainly has its place because learning should be fun, but not frivolous–or, sadly, a dumping ground for students who haven’t successfully integrated in the other “core” classes.
The arts can promote skill sets that will help students succeed in whatever field they find themselves and as much as I hate to justify the value of art in terms of its ability to help children get a job sometime in the future, it’s important to “sell” art education to those who will be making the budgets.  Further, the arts allow students (aka future leaders of society) to exercise cognitive skills that they seldom use in other academic settings.  Students who have been exposed to the arts have been shown to demonstrate greater achievement in other areas.
Again, I iterate that I think the arts have intrinsic value outside of how creative thinking can facilitate making mo money.  Everything within a community is crafted in a manner that reflects what those people value.  Every artifice reflects who we are as a people–our dreams, hopes, fears, greatness, darkness, and what we may become.  No more effective barometer of a culture can be found outside of its creative expressions.
End rant.
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