Understanding Art

Listen to what moves you, and if it isn’t what you expect, rejoice in the surprise.”
Susan Bell, The Artful Edit

Not everyone is gifted with equal degrees of physical or emotional gifts. Most people could train forever and would never become a world class painter or violinist. Even with some effort, we might enjoy and be enriched by what we do, but others might not find it pleasurable, sublime, full of wonder, or internally resonant.

Nor is everyone gifted with the same ability to perceive what an artist has done. A work of art may require us to remember previous invocations of a melody, distinguish subtle shades of color, or feel certain ranges of emotions. Sometimes explanation helps, but unless you develop an intuitive, instinctive understanding of art, you will be eternally frustrated. Understanding is constrained not only by native gifts, but also by the time available to develop it. We all have life responsibilities and interests. For most of us, art is competing with significant others, family, friends, work, hobbies, and other activities.

Understanding is muddled by the evolution of art from everyday life to museums or concert halls. Artistic skill was once used primarily to create pragmatic objects, illustrate a religious story, memorialize a great battle, or celebrate a life event. Artistic skill is now used to create “works of art” that demand to stand on their own.

I remember walking up the steps of the Greek altar in the Pergamon museum in Berlin. I wanted to recreate the feeling of an ancient Greek approaching the altar. As I walked up the center of the stairs I got some feeling for the grandeur and awe that might be felt, but I could never imagine the mind set, or the expectations of the people who built it. Removed from its time, place, and the people who understood it, it was just a beautiful, historical artifact.

The western side of the Pergamon Altar as reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. © Raimond Spekking / , via Wikimedia Commons
The western side of the Pergamon Altar as reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.    © Raimond Spekking / , via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine coming across some of your relatives’ gravestones in an art museum exhibit about burial customs. What would your feelings be? How would they compare with visiting those gravestones at the gravesite?

Understanding was further muddled when some of the great critics, such as Clement Greenberg, confused their interests and sensitivities with art in general.

The best one can do is to try, within the constraints of one’s life, to experience art.

Spend some of your time looking at, or listening to the great work of a great artist.

Spend some time examining a great artist’s not so great work.

Spend some time looking at works of art you don’t understand (or even hate), and try to understand why.

Spend some time with popular art, and try to understand the relationship between popular and great art.

Above all, experience what you see, hear, touch, smell or feel.

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