What does it mean when someone says, “I don’t understand art”?

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'Comedian' by Maurizio Cattelan. Source: Artnet
Ruby Jagrut
Ruby Jagrut

In 2019, an artwork called ‘Comedian’, which featured a banana taped to a wall was all the rage. Created by Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan, the piece quickly went viral at Art Basel Miami Beach. Several versions of the piece eventually sold for over $100,000. This was the value of the banana or the tape or the idea or fluke, we do not know. For that, we must understand the absurdity and the impermanence of expression.

It is normal to find some faces in art shows and galleries who wear a bored and disinterested look and are probably more bothered about grabbing a cookie or coffee than looking at the art on display. Is it because art is too complex to understand and therefore, boring? That boredom comes from stress is a scientific fact and distraction is something we are always battling with.

How does one then experience art in terms of understanding it? How do we stand before a piece of art and strike a conversation with it? It may not always be simple and straight, because art is probably not like news and information that we are swarmed with, in our daily lives and on our devices. This conversation is about how your eyes are taken to various optical centers or points in a painting and what they evoke in you.

Frankly, you do not have to try very hard to understand art. It is a matter of choice, it is subjective and as I said, a matter of experience. It is also a skill: seeing what is present before us. The other problem is we are not trained to see it. We are not curious to enquire and ask. We are also not allowed to interpret and imagine the piece of art in question to build our own narrative and story around it. All of this makes it difficult for us as individuals and as a society to connect to the layered complexities of art, its colours and strokes. 

Then there is this anxiety of confirming to the larger crowd that you understand art no less than others. The fear of being left out, of not being able to impress others and of not being sure of your feelings whilst experiencing art. Then, of course, you are in a rush for the next interesting thing/ task of your life promising perhaps a greater gratification than looking at art.

Looking at a crowd in a gallery would perhaps be a great exercise to record what is going on in their mind. Looking at what switches the mind on and what turns it off, where there is a struggle or a short circuit spark. How does a child look at a piece of art, and how does an adult engage with it? How available are we for this experience? How open are we to soaking the experience and in the process uncovering its own struggle? To reach and articulate along with the audience’s own challenges to reach out and connect?

There is always another woman or a man beyond the piece of art, who thought and arranged the lines and colours to convey. Through art, we meet that person and sometimes some shades of our own selves and some very universal shades. Even when we feel we don’t understand art, we are dealing with multiple things which have elements of art, design, colours and narratives. They range from picking this device to choosing what to wear, to picking a shade of lipstick to noticing a new car on the road and watching an advert on mobile to using a meme or an emoji. There is something arty happening within somewhere that we are very comfortable with. We face a problem when we are subjected to proper art. 

No one is lying when they say they don’t understand art. It is just that they put more weight on understanding the thought of it than experiencing the feel of it. There are so many things in our life, we experience but do not notice or take seriously, but not everything is happening at the conscious level. Like a tree, when cut in our neighbourhood was there for us forever, for birds, for shade and as a beautiful, majestic piece of nature. But when it was gone, we realised how beautiful it was. We took it for granted and never saw it in its own beauty and eloquence. 

Like nature, the enormous variety of art created in human minds and through human hands across the world and through centuries expresses a multitude of ideas, experiences, cultural concepts, creativity, and social values. We have evolved similarly across the globe and that is why we find almost identical cave paintings around the world. Pre-historic man-made images to communicate. This was probably the first form of communication.

Man started painting before he discovered fire. These drawings disseminated information of various kinds: food availability, shelter, danger and so on. It is likely that they were not always for passing information. Sometimes, they might have been made just for fun, without any urgency or rush.

So many works of art are not screaming or crying, which is probably what we have become used to. We get to miss out when a solemn piece is just whispering through its frames and lines. We miss out on the languages created and lost through different forms of art.

Maybe abstraction in art has moved some away from it as they are trained to see things in a particular way. Art is a symbol used to express status, ideas, power, and privilege within, and allegiance to, a community. That is its sole purpose. It is basically a totem pole. It is created to be displayed, to communicate what culture or community you belong to and your place within it so that you can use that context (of status, power, privilege, and allegiance) to communicate more efficiently and effectively with others, and ultimately to command more resources. Sometimes intentionally, at times it happens in a very subtle subconscious way.

It is like a quickly swirling dancer in a flash. If you miss the moment then you also probably miss what the dance is trying to tell you by action. It is okay if you do not understand art. Experience it as it comes. Not in very definite terms. But more with a sympathetic sense of wonder. 

 

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