“I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. I like the art spaces but that’s about it.”
After her visit to the National Gallery of Modern Art, my friend complains, she would rather have the artist explain the art to her.
“I do hate open endings.” she says.
That’s probably one of the reasons why art remains so removed and distant from most us, and why artists are increasingly finding the need to explain their art to people to make it more relatable. It isn’t explained enough. Should it be explained, or are you meant to ascertain with your own senses what art is ?
“So why pretend?” she asks
I took some time to think about it. Why does art appeal to some and not to others ?
Why art fails to capture most of us and is simply banished as something that only fine arts students need to be concerned with, definitely has something to do with our pace of life and engagement with technology.
My Instagram feed over the past few months was filled with pictures from the Kochi Muziris Biennale with captions like ‘art imitates life and life imitates art.’ While I don’t deny that we do enjoy art, I do question how we enjoy it? Can we view art as more than an Instagram post with a quirky caption? We attend art shows, we value art for money and yet, the art world is not entirely comprehensive to all of us.
Turkish author Sabahattin Ali in his book ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’, explores very vividly the impact of art on a mind. The protagonist, Raif (not one for modern art but dabbles in painting briefly ) walks into a gallery in Berlin and is almost immediately transfixed by the self-portrait of an artist. Dubbed as the ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’,by local critics, citing a close resemblance to Mother Mary in Madonna delle Arpie. He sits for hours and hours before the painting. Day after day, he returns to sit with her. He imagines a great deal about her. Somehow in those few paragraphs, Ali convinces us of the power of art as a moving force. It can stir the quietest of minds and still the most raging ones.
What stands out most about Ali’s character, is his experience that comes from taking time with the portrait that appeals so much to him.While the focus of this book is not about art, it makes a very interesting case for the slow movement and by extension slow art.
Raif comes day after day just so he can spend time with the painting, who is everything familiar and yet strange to him. The painting is revelatory, at the same time mysterious. It is this inter play of thought, and experience, that not all of us can speak of. Most of the time, we do it for the gram.
In our quickly paced lives, we have to remind ourselves now and then to slow things down. Slow down, take a breath. Mindfulness is very en vogue. The slow food movement for the uninitiated, started by Carlo Petrini, a political activist who protested against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Rome in 1986. The Slow movement grew from this. It advocates for a cultural shift to slowing down life’s pace. Over time, it has developed into a subculture and since then, its application has extended to a various activities and aspects of culture and living.
We are constantly made to believe that fast is better (read super fast delivery from your trusted online retailer, 1212648 likes for that Instagram post on art, and of course binge-watching your favourite show or all that swipe-left-swipe-right business to name a few) So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the slow movement also has a valid extended application to parenting and sexual relationships. Yes, there is a slow parenting movement as well as a slow sex movement.
So back to my friend who says she cannot appreciate art without knowing what the artist means. Now she argues, she wants clarity. Clarity is not always and cannot always be handed to you. It comes with time. Clarity is moving from a state of blur to more definition. Clarity is most often revealed to you with use of your own senses.
The problem is we are always told. We are so used to being told that more often than not, we ignore what see and don’t attach any importance to it. We are also so hurried that we don’t want to listen to what our senses are telling us and this could be applied to understanding art as well. Forget forming an opinion about something, many times we don’t even pause to think of how something might make us feel.
While I am no great art connoisseur and I can barely name a few artists or their styles, one thing that I have come to learn with appreciating art is, you need solitude and time to experience art without which art can feel so removed and alien.
Who is the Self? We’ve had C.G.Jung, Freud and many more who contemplate the self and very often get close to the best meaning of self, how each person’s experiences shape them differently. However, a greater challenge today is how much do we listen to ourselves. How often are we living life unfiltered. How much of our thoughts are free from perceptions of others or what we want or expect of others.
Hayley Schneuman of the Cut wrote ‘The Correct Way to go See a Movie is by Yourself’ and I agree. She writes, “When you read a book, you read it by yourself and later discuss it with other people who have also read that book. This is how we should watch movies.” This is true of art as well. You need to be alone with your self, to see what a piece of art can evoke in you. Sometimes it does not appeal to sentiment and sometimes it does, but it’s more likely that you are going to try to oblige the person you are with while visiting an art gallery or constantly looking into your phone, instead of engaging with the artwork before you.
Some of your thoughts may sound like this.
“Maybe it’s getting late.”
“I wonder what he/she think of this one ?”
“Please God, let it not be something deep. I really have no thoughts or opinions on this one. It’s just a black dot for God’s sake!”
“Oh wow this is beautiful. Look how the artist has painted her eyes.”
“Maybe I want to stand here a bit longer but, mister here has moved to the last aisle already.”
“What is taking him/her so long?”
The thought narrative is simple and barely focusses on what is before you. In such a situation, it is unlikely that you would be able to listen to what your senses are saying. Solitude— pure and unadulterated is important.
You could be denying yourself the time to sit and dwell on the “eyes” that caught your attention. If you gave it the time it asks for, you might traverse a different emotion, one that you didn’t know. I agree, that sometimes it doesn’t inspire anything in you and sometimes it does, but in all likelihood, before you began this exploration, you were called away by the notification tone of your phone.
Back in the day without phones or cameras, people sat for hours before a painting, taking note of the emotions that art inspired in them. A meditative process that has been disastrously reduced with our increase in use of technology. They didn’t have a phone to look into every ten minutes, they didn’t have to worry about what they did with their time or how long they could dedicate to doing something. Time was of essence and yet not a concern. They valued it, but also got a great deal more out of it than we do today.
“So why pretend?” or “Try not to pretend.” The choice is yours to consciously make.
Raif of ‘Madonna in a Fur coat’ fell in love with a painting. He imagined what kind of woman she might be, what made her the way she was, and a whole spectrum of endless possibility. This ability is lost today because there is so little left to the imagination and we don’t often allow an easy acquaintance with our own selves. We are too busy pretending. It is important to try experience things for what they are, untainted by the external, because without trying, we are denying ourselves some of the lesser joys that have sustained humanity.