I find my mum a great source of fodder for thinking about art and the contemporary art world. She is a very intelligent person – she teaches calculus at AUT – she also has no connection to the art world, but comes to see the work produced by us MFA students at Whitecliffe and also the occasional exhibition that I want to go to (she enjoyed the Light Show).
She said something to me last week that I think is echoed by a great many people outside the academic art sphere: that the contemporary art world makes it difficult for ‘outsiders’ to understand and access the content of the work.
I can see why people feel this way, but at the same time there are a number of reasons why this is the case;
1) All good things require time and effort.
When the general public looks at art they generally feel that they should be able to stand in front of it for a couple of minutes and all of a sudden every subtle nuance and meaning will become obvious and the viewer can make a decision on whether they ‘like’ it or not.
Liking a work is, of course, irrelevant. It can be a very successful work and you can personally find it tedious or just not to your taste.
Taste is obviously subjective, whereas the qualifying factors around whether a work is considered ‘good’ or not need to be, for the most part, objective. This is where the global art world comes in to play. Being a rather academic subject art is debated, pulled apart and contextualised by experts the world over who place the work in it’s historical, social, cultural and contemporary setting to see whether it is communicating in a valuable way. In order to be able to do this the viewer needs a decent knowledge of art practice and context (context is going to come up again in Part 2), both local and global, without this the work is experiential only. If a member of the public would like to have more knowledge and access to this context all it requires is some time and effort to do a bit of reading, watch some videos and visit more galleries – for an academic subject it’s far more accessible to the lay person than, say, astrophysics. But you have to put in the time.
Speaking of time, this is another aspect of art viewing that the public haven’t always grasped. Looking at a work for 2 minutes then moving on the the next one until you have viewed 20 pieces at a sprint is ultimately going to be unfulfilling. Many contemporary works need time and consideration to appreciate fully, and in our time-poor culture most people aren’t used to taking that quiet time to look and to think. Yet again, this is completely doable by most members of the public, but not only have we not been taught to read visual language, we also have been conditioned to have very short attention spans, so sitting or standing still to contemplate can be anathema to how many people live their lives.
2) Art is not illustration.
Many of my friends are impressed when I draw or paint something realistic, “Those apricots look so real! I thought they were a photo!” (actually, I didn’t use photography because you can’t get an apricot to look that good on a chocolate box). Their understanding of what makes successful art is limited to how accurately it represents something in real life and how difficult they think it would be for them to try and do that themselves. The fact that art exists as an academic discipline, influencing global culture – actually pushing the boundaries of thought – is not something most people recognise. To the wider public art is something nice you look at, not something that causes you to think.
This is where the anger people feel when they don’t like something or don’t ‘get’ something comes in. There is an expectation that artwork should be impressively realistic, it should be hung on a wall or displayed on a podium, it should be tangible, it should exist in a house or a gallery. David Joselit captures this change in the nature, format and location of art in “After Art” where he examines the way art has moved from the walls and podiums into a global space and how art has become an informer of, a reflection of and a creator of global cultures and ways of thinking;
“Art links social elites, sophisticated philosophy, spectrum of practical skills in representation, a mass public, a discourse of attributed meaning to images, financial speculation, and assertions of national and ethnic identity… the art world links valuable cultural capital associated with philosophical discourse to mass appeal and bald financial power.”
Joselit, D. “After Art” (2013) Princeton University Press, Princeton: USA.
Talking to my mum I realised that there is a whole world that most people are unaware of; the world of art fairs, biennials, critics, art writers, museums, collectors, dealers, investors, galleries and the artists themselves. A whole movement informing the way we think and see things that most people don’t know exists – although often they are aware of the trickle down of ideas into film, music videos, advertising, fashion and design.
The art world is there for everyone to enjoy and be part of, on both a local and global level in city galleries and huge biennials. It just requires a bit of time and commitment to learn the language and become a part of the conversation.