Understanding Art

Let’s talk art for a moment. Specifically, let’s talk why that which we separate off from the world at large seems so inaccessible. Let’s talk about why it seems so hard to understand. Actually, those two thoughts are almost impossible to separate.

The reason that “high” art seems too remote and complicated – at least if we set aside that there are people who see setting art apart from the hoi polloi as a virtue – is that art has its own language. We can learn this language when we realize that art is an act of memory, prediction, and nuance.

It actually helps to think of art as language. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a native speaker of English who has never in your life learned a word of a different language. Through some contrivance you end up in a room full of German speakers. You would probably find this intimidating. German is completely foreign to you. I.

If you don’t run out of the room immediately you might begin to notice something. At first you might note that there is most definitely a rhythm, purpose, and structure to the language. Once you grew accustomed to it you might further note that German shares several words with English. Eventually you might even begin to get the gist of what’s going on in some of the conversations.

The problem with learning the language of art as opposed to learning German is that art is an almost entirely subjective language. Words have a fairly narrow range of possible meaning. If you get the basic word you can understand how to use it. There will always be difficulties that stem from wordplay, ironic usage, and slang. If you can get the rules and definitions down chances are that you will learn to incorporate the alternate usages without too much difficulty.

The language of art, on the other hand, is an infinitely complex variation on motif and theme, a building on past terms and nuances in order to create present meaning and future purpose. Those variations are entirely dependent on how the artist sees them. Since there is no really way for the uninitiated to know what the artist was thinking or how the artist was influenced, it can make the language seem densely impossible.

That is where the self-appointed gatekeepers of higher culture come in to play. The fact that art looks so complicated allows them to possess the gnosis of art. They get to separate themselves and look down their noses at the madding crowd with its lack of appreciation for the finer things in life. Everyone likes to be important, after all.

But here’s the thing: the language of art is actually surprisingly easy to pick up. Chances are that anyone who has ever consumed popular music knows exactly how to speak the language. Musicians speak in terms of influences all the time.

Say the only band you’ve ever heard about is Oasis. You love Oasis. You listen to Oasis constantly.

One day you read an article about Oasis. That article talks about Oasis’s influences. All of the sudden you learn that there is a band out there called the Beatles and another called the Velvet Underground and a third called the Jam. Studying further you learn about the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Ride. So you set out to get music by all of those bands. You listen for a while and realize that there are a bunch of things in Oasis songs that are similar to things in songs by those other bands. But you also realize that there are things that are different. Believe it or not that’s all that is required to understand art.

Anyone who knows about the history of music knows that it’s a long story about interrelation, influence, and collaboration. Take any modern rock band and follow their influences back. You’ll eventually reach the Beatles and Elvis. Go back from there and you’ll hit jazz. Go back from there and you’ll eventually hit Mozart and so on until you’re at the first caveman who realized that he could make pleasing hooting noises.

The great thing about this is that you don’t actually have to know anything whatsoever about music in order to do this. You don’t have to be able to play an instrument, write a song, or carry a tune. You just have to be curious.

Moreover, you don’t have to worry about liking the right music. You just have to like something. Getting in to art is really that simple.

Walk into an art museum somewhere. Look around for something that you find interesting. Look for something, in short, that you like. Soak in the details. Then find something else you like. Soak in the details. Keep doing that until you’re tired or a docent kicks you out. But don’t – and this is key – forget what you liked and why you liked it. You’re not done yet.

See, now that you’re interested in some bit of art the next trick is to go study it. Find out why the artist made it, find out who that artist’s influences were. Then go look at some more art.

If you’re feeling really frisky, go find some art you don’t like. Study it. Ask yourself why. Then find out about that art, too. You might discover that your reasons for disliking it are based on a lack of understanding of intent and style. You might find you appreciate it in spite of the fact that you dislike it. That happens. It’s good.

Now that you’ve picked up a few things in this language known as art the next step is to find a tutor. I recommend Lawrence Weschler, personally. His magnificent Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences taught me more about art than several semesters of humanities classes, precisely because he wrote a book about how to look at and understand art, instead of writing a book that was just about art. He’s like Art 101 and a graduate-level seminar on the subject all rolled in to one ecstatically brilliant and wonderfully written package.

I also strongly recommend finding a copy of Simon Schama’s Power of Art, a BBC program from a few years ago. It picks eight pieces of art and tells the story behind them, creating a narrative scaffolding to explain where art comes from. Art doesn’t just pop in to existence, after all. It is the product of a time and place and person.

If you start there you will, of course, be given the option of following any number of additional paths. I cannot choose those for you. I would not dare try.


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