I’m not an art historian. I didn’t even study art. In fact, what we called ‘art’ in school was actually a weekly exercise in defacing paper and wasting paint. Performing arts were limited to having to sit through Shakespeare every two years and one year of ‘musical education’ (read: lip-synching Michael Jackson).
Nevertheless, I like art. Visual arts, performing arts, even conceptual arts and art oddities such as great food. I like art because of the process. Because of the quest for some kind of universal truth (beauty) that is behind all great art. I find art highly entertaining.
Before I started working in cultural institutions I would hardly ever go to see art. Like most of my friends, I liked art as I like marathons on Facebook.
Because I work in cultural institutions over the past years a great number of people have individually invested in my knowledge about and appreciation of art. I remember for instance walking through the National Gallery of Art in DC where Erik van Tuijn took the trouble to explain the magic of Rothko to me. I remember a great private tour through the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid where I finally could knit together the different periods. I remember (and still enjoy) all the hours in which my girlfriend carefully explains theatre and classical music to me.
There is one reason and one reason alone I am an art consumer: it’s because I know a little about art. Enough to be able to appreciate it.
There is one reason and one reason alone I know a little about art: because I work in culture and have the time and luck to learn more about it.
Most people, unfortunately, do not have this privilege. Most people, like most of my friends, will continue saying they like art, but never consume it (with a hint of guilt in their voice).
To change this, we (I’ve quickly switched sided to the representatives of The Arts) need to create an atmosphere where people can grow to appreciate arts. And no, this is not about education. Grouping people around a guide to run through your venue or an elaborate leaflet explaining the conditions under which the piece was composed will not help people to appreciate art. To do so, we need to create situations where people can respond to their innate curiosity.
Curiosity is the stuff kids and animals have and it’s the natural state of things. That’s why they used children and animals in old movies: it gives a genuine feel to something badly acted.
Curiosity is not knowing exactly what’s going on and being intrigued by it. Not knowing exactly what’s going on, however, is considered a bad thing for grown-ups, especially since the financial crisis some years ago. We’re so accustomed to having to act we know and understand everything that when people ask us what we said, we simply repeat ourselves BUT MORE LOUDLY, rather than taking a step back and wonder if the person did hear us just fine, but might not have understood what we said.
Being allowed to be curious is a prerequisite to appreciate art. Success is not in the number of painting you see in a tour, but in the number of questions you’re able to ask about an individual painting. And we’re not all too good at creating situations where people can ask questions and feel safe to be curious.
Last weekend I visited a Munch exhibition in the National Galleries of Scotland and they did a really good job at stirring people’s curiosity and creating a place where one could learn to appreciate art. Fifty works on paper, mostly sets of different impressions of Munch’s most famous paintings, without too much fanfare and stripped bare of most pretence (apart from, of course, the fact it were works of Munch). Wonderful! The limited collection, nice guards and easy setting allowed for lengthy study of the differences between the works and their different emotive impact without feeling rushed or judged.
There was also a copy of The Scream, of which another copy has recently been sold for 100 million Euros. The ‘Scotland’ version (a ‘mere study’) however did not have this price tag attracting all attention. Therefore it was possible to enjoy the work of art as a work of art. It was very powerful, even though it might not have been ‘the original’.
At the moment I’m working on a similar project with a team where we have made photorealistic copies of 200 of the most important works of Van Gogh and stripped them bare of all pretence a Van Gogh painting gets in a museum. As we also took away much of the dirt and discolouring that occurred on the painting through the years, the project shows Van Gogh in a refreshingly pure way. The effect is that I appreciate his paintings, not his ‘works’ and learn about his art accordingly.
I think that if we want people to come to our venues and appreciate our work, it is all about creating moments where people can be surprised by the art. Not by the security guards, not by the price tags, not by the line-up, but by the art.
Everyone who has ever spent fifteen minutes with a Rothko knows it will forever change your appreciation of abstract expressionism and because of that of modern and contemporary art. How often, however, do cultural institutions allow us to spend fifteen minutes with a Rothko?
I don’t have any formal background in the arts, only a healthy interest. Like many people, unless I’m actually dragged into a museum or theatre I wouldn’t normally go there. Not because I dislike these places and not because I’m lazy, but because for a long time I’ve felt unprepared to appreciate what was going on inside. In my case this changed through luck, but we need more than luck to make art accessible to all people like me.
Header photo by Harald Groven on Flickr.