I am forever dumbfounded by conversations I have with smart, intelligent people about art. Not because they don’t have insightful interpretations to share or clever observations to point out, rather, because they do not trust their own opinions and are paralysed by the fear of ‘getting it wrong’, as if interpreting art is the creative version of writing a linear equation. The fear of making a mistake and incorrectly judging the meaning or purpose behind a work is so overwhelming that they would rather not comment on it at all, or meekly comment on it ‘being nice’ before muttering something about themselves not really ‘getting’ it. As far as I see it, if you are curious about the world and have managed to draw together a thoughtful understanding of the art at hand, no matter what your opinion is, it is impossible to get it wrong.
In an effort to foster confidence and encourage intellectual debate, I wrote about this topic for Junkee media site, The Cusp. Check out the full text:
One of the most fun parts of adult-ing is filling up your social calendar with fancy parties and events like gallery openings and art fairs. It’s all fun and games during the eating and drinking portion of the evening, but what about the cultural engagement element?
Sorry, what? Maybe you’ve already ghosted it by this stage. Or maybe you’re brave and have decided to fake it ’til you make it only to breathe a sigh of relief when the full blown grown-up next to you mutters I don’t get it. Aside from T-Swifts current extended-performance with faux-beaux Tom Hiddleston, understanding art doesn’t have to be as hard as it has the rep for.
With a little confidence, an open mind, and a teeny-tiny amount of general knowledge that you most definitely already have, you can shake off imposter syndrome and read art like the free spirited animal that you are.
#1 You can never be wrong
Let’s start out with this one because once you have a solid relationship with the fact that you can never be wrong in your interpretations, all the rest falls seamlessly into place like an Alexandar Calder mobile. Take comfort in the knowledge that there is never any right or wrong answer.
Art history is riddled with critics, curators, and artists sharing their varied opinions. Different points of view makes the whole reading and writing of art that much more exciting and when you think about it, it’s kinda the whole point of the arts industry.
Alexander Calder, Maripose (1960)
#2 Go with your gut
Listen to your immediate gut reaction and ask yourself how it makes you feel. This is powerful right here. This exercise of asking yourself what it means. It is the emotional equivalent of a Christo Jeanne-Claude wrapped Lake Iseo in Italy. Ask yourself what the work reminds you of? What is it that you like about it? Take some time to process your thoughts before verbalising them. This gives you an opportunity to construct a thoughtful and intelligent sentence while appearing to be lost in the work.
#3 Learn a few key terms
Sure, you can tell the difference between a portrait painting and a landscape, but what about the rest? Learn the difference between a sculpture and an installation and you will go far in this world. It is easy to learn about an artist if you aren’t familiar with their work but make sure you know a few terms to talk about the medium of a piece confidently. An installation is a site specific work, a performance is usually a one off, and a conceptual piece is, well, conceptual. Arm yourself with some buzzwords and the rest will follow organically.
#4 You do not have to know everything
The great thing about art is that no one is expected to know the history of everything. There are no fact checkers standing behind you in a gallery or bugging your conversation at an opening. Where does the horizon expansion element of the exercise come in if we all know everything already? Don’t over exhaust yourself finding the connection between James Turrell’s ‘Breathing light’ and Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ if you don’t already know it. Think about what you do know and start drawing connections from there.
James Turrell, Breathing Light (2013)
Art is basically an amalgamation of everything that you already know or that is happening in the world around you from the Single Ladies dance to the Apple logo presented in a way that is either decidedly different from anything the world has ever seen before, or a same-same-but-different reworking of past concepts. But can you tell which is which? Does it matter? What? No, no, what did you say? OK I’ll go: art inspires, it has a lifespan, it is copied or disregarded, and the cycle goes on.
#5 Support the artists you like
This one is easy. And kinda potentially the most important because without the artists there would be no art. If you discover an artist whose work you particularly like and feel a connection with, read more about what they do and where they show. You might find that they have more shows coming up or a latest series of works about to be exhibited. Maybe, just maybe, you will find something and someone who is able to communicate something that you feel or believe but cannot articulate.
#6 Cut the crap and have fun
Being a full time adult can be a drag and comes with a price tag. Engaging with art isn’t like signing up for private health insurance when you’re 30. In fact, I think you will find that most art is free and has no age limit. Art should be enjoyed, not be an obligation. Remember that you are not expected to like everything so only make time for the stuff you really enjoy and want to see. Like a Clarke Beaumont performance, reading art that you find interesting will make you feel like you’ve connected with something beyond your world and expanded out into something bigger. ♦