On R.E.M., and why we don’t appreciate art as much as we should

There is some art you like. There is some art you dislike. There is some “art” you wouldn’t even call art at all.

These statements are true for all of us. Where we differ is how we define these buckets.

For example, do you like Jackson Pollock’s paintings? He’s the one who dripped different colored paint all over a canvas. Here’s one of his paintings:

Jackson Pollock Number 5, 1948

Do you think that’s art? Or do you think it’s the work of an unskilled hack?

What about Nickelback? Do you like their music? Would you call it art? Or would you say it’s uninspired drivel from an undeserving group of sellouts?

What’s the definition of art?

What is art? What’s your definition? How do you separate what is art from what isn’t?

Here’s the best I can do:

Art is something that someone makes that someone else appreciates.

Full stop. It’s not terribly compelling at first glance. But it does rule some things out:

  1. If someone didn’t make it, it’s not art. For example, nature isn’t art.
  2. If no one besides the maker appreciates it, it’s not art. A silent artist working tediously in her studio, who intends to bury or destroy whatever she’s making…isn’t making art.

The way I see it, the essence of art is connection. Art is a gift made by an artist. Anyone who appreciates the gift connects with the artist. And, by proxy, everyone who appreciates the gift connects with each other.

Human beings are overwhelmingly social. For me, the point of life is to build the most fulfilling relationships I can. Relationships come in all shapes and sizes. Some involve equal back and forth. Others are predominantly one-sided. An eclectic, evolving collection of relationships seems to be ideal. And art is an enormously important channel through we can build some of these relationships.

The art and artist are inseparable

Let’s take the example of a nicely polished wooden ornament. We can imagine this ornament coming into existence in two ways:

  1. It fell off a tree, and the forces of time and weather shaped and smoothed it.
  2. A person selected this piece of wood, and whittled and polished it to what we now see.

Both scenarios yielded the exact same wooden decoration. Using my definition, the first piece isn’t art. It’s still beautiful. It’s still eye-catching. But it’s not art.

The second piece of wood is art, assuming it’s passed to someone who appreciates it. Maybe a grandfather creates a decoration for his granddaughter’s desk. He worked hard on it. He cared for it. He crafted it deliberately. And his granddaughter loves it, knowing it came from someone who loves her and loves his craft.

You love your kid’s drawings, not because the drawings are great, but because you know what the drawings mean. The drawings are a way for your child to show her affection for you. They’re a way for him to express his gratitude, or to pick up your spirit. Who knows exactly why your child drew something and gave it to you. What we all know is the drawing is a gift, and it’s meant to deepen your relationship.

That’s why looking at art in a vacuum, without considering the artist, is futile. At best, it’s a muted experience. At worst, it completely misses the point. Art is meant to connect. If you’re not considering the source of the potential connection, then you’re robbing art of its humanity.

Which came first, the art or the artist?

You and I can respond very differently to the same piece of art, depending on what connection we already do, or don’t, have with the artist. I break these connections into three buckets:

  1. Intimate familiarity, or in other words, friends and family
  2. Passing familiarity, like knowing about a celebrity artist before you first experience his or her art
  3. No familiarity, or in other words, complete strangers

Intimate familiarity with the artist

Take the first class of relationship. Think of the example of your kid’s drawing. You had a profound relationship with your child well before the drawing was made. Your relationship with your child fundamentally changed your appreciation for the art.

This dynamic holds across the board for friends and family. These relationships were in place before any particular piece of art was created. Your existing relationship with the artist will heavily influence your response to the art. Your connection already exists. The art deepens it, makes it more durable.

Passing familiarity with the artist

Take the second class of relationship. Think of The Beatles, or Picasso, or Ernest Hemingway, before you experienced their art. You were aware of the artist. You likely heard about their genius. You knew about the broad respect they had earned.

Again, you will respond to the art differently knowing a bit about the artist. Maybe you’ll be inclined to like the artist more, since you want to fit in. Maybe you’ll be inclined to like the artist less, since you want to be a contrarian.

Your initial inclination won’t dictate your response to the art. You can want to fit in and still just really dislike The Beatles’ music, Hemingway’s books, or Picasso’s paintings. Likewise, you can want to be a contrarian and still ultimately be a fan. The point, though, is your familiarity with the artist will color your reaction to the art.

No familiarity with the artist

Take the third class of relationship. You have no familiarity with the artist. Your response to the art will drive any connection you may or may not build with the artist.

The difficult part about this scenario is you have no baseline to judge from. With intimate familiarity, you already have a mature, multidimensional relationship with the artist. Your judgment of the art is irrevocably wound into that relationship. With a passing familiarity, you at least know about other people’s responses. You can calibrate your response accordingly. But when you know nothing about the artist, you’re on your own. It can be paralyzing, in a way.

How we respond when we’re not strongly connected to the artist

Like I said before, a personal relationship with the artist colors our response to the art. Those are corner cases. The broader art world is full of artists with whom we have a passing familiarity at best. These cases, where the art itself is a gateway to the artist, are by far the most interesting.

We can initially react to any particular piece of art in one of four ways:

  1. Strong like
  2. Weak like
  3. Weak dislike
  4. Strong dislike

Let me star with the extremes. Say you have a strong like of the art. You’ll want to dig deeper into the artist. You’ll learn more. You’ll ask people about them. You’ll search for them online. You’ll watch videos and read books about them. You’ll seek out more of their art.

Say you have a strong dislike of the art. In the vast majority of cases, you’ll disengage from the artist entirely. You’ll avoid their galleries, their books, their songs, their movies. If the reaction is strong enough, you may never consider reengaging with the artist again. The potential for any connection withers.

If you have a weak reaction, like or dislike, you’ll probably leave it alone. You won’t pay much attention to the artist. It’s a pop song that comes on the radio. It’s a painting hanging on the wall of a museum. It’s a piece of street art on the side of a building. It ephemerally pleasant or unpleasant, but it doesn’t linger.

Weak reactions can become strong over time. If you come into contact with art from the same artist over and over again, you may eventually notice. If you have a weak like for the art, you may dig deeper. You may develop an affinity for the artist that strengthens your appreciation for the art.

Likewise, an accumulation of weakly negative impressions can drive you away. In an isolated case, the art isn’t so unpleasant. But repeated exposure drains you. It wears you down. Your reaction becomes more of a strong dislike over time.

An example of an artist that has grown on me: R.E.M.

Michael Stipe. Courtesy Kris Krug

Let’s use music as an example again. I just listened to the most recent episode of Here’s the Thing, Alec Baldwin’s podcast. He interviewed Michael Stipe, the lead singer of the now defunct R.E.M.

I am reasonably familiar with R.E.M. I know all the songs that have played on the radio over the decades. Before now, I would have said I liked R.E.M., even though I didn’t own any of their albums and hadn’t heard much besides their radio fare.

Listening to the interview, I came away super impressed with Michael Stipe. He’s highly self-aware. He seems to approach song writing in a focused, deliberate way. He has immense appreciation for his forebears. He embraces the obligation to be genuine, as he creates music to share with his fans.

After the interview, I immediately downloaded two R.E.M. albums: Automatic for the People and Monster. I listened to them both several times. And I ended up liking R.E.M. a whole lot more than I did before.

Take Automatic for the People. The two most recognizable songs are Everybody Hurts and Man on the Moon. Somehow, knowing how much the music meant to Michael Stipe, and listening to these songs in the context of the album, I appreciate the music so much more. These recognizable songs sounded bigger, and more meaningful, than they had before.

Only two things had changed. One, I had much more familiarity with Michael Stipe as an artist. (I went on to YouTube the same night and watched several more Michael Stipe interviews, including the one with Charlie Rose. I’m obsessive.) Two, I had the context of the album, which gave me an idea of what the band was thinking as they created these famous songs.

These two elements, which helped me connect the art to the artist, transformed my appreciation. Before, I thought of Everybody Hurts and Man on the Moon as simply good songs. After, knowing the care and intent with which R.E.M. created these songs, I appreciate them on a whole new level.

My weak, positive affinity for R.E.M. strengthened, after I learned more about them. I now think of R.E.M. as more distinguished artists, even though nothing changed from the perspective of the music or the band. What changed was the connection I have to the band, only because I now know the generosity they were aiming for, in creating and sharing their gift. (I’m using “generosity” in the Seth Godin sense.)

Knowledge of the artist gives you next level understanding of the art

Jackson Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Courtesy Joan Sorolla

If I have one overarching point, this is it: a full appreciation of art only comes with knowledge of the artist. Take the Jackson Pollock painting at the top of this post as an example. If that was the result of a bunch of paint cans crashing down onto a canvas, you’d appreciate it a lot less. But knowing it’s the inspired work of a dedicated, obsessive painter…it’s at least more likely that you’ll appreciate the work.

Again, that’s why we appreciate art from friends and family the way we do. We know who they are. We know how hard they tried. We know their intention. We have a strong affinity for them, which helps us embrace the art as a way to deepen our connection.

On the flip side, I think this is the problem for Nickelback. A ton of people think they know the band a bit, and have openly declared them frauds. Nickelback is a good example of how “knowing” the artist can negatively influence your response to the art.

There’s a reason I put quotation marks around the word knowing. From afar, we can only really know an artist so well. Some people will listen to the same Michael Stipe interview I did and be turned off. They’ll think less of R.E.M., whereas I thought more of them. Your affinity for an artist will depend strongly on the way you see yourself and the way you see the world.

There’s no way to objectively know an artist. You can learn more about them. You can learn where they’re from, how they work, what inspires them. Then you can weave that information into your worldview. Over time, you’ll either have more or less affinity for the artist. And your affinity for the artist will indelibly affect your response to their art.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I like Nickelback’s music. I’ve listened to the better part of three of their albums. They fall on the “weak like” part of the spectrum for me. I don’t have any real knowledge of the band. And I’m not inspired to do a bunch of digging. So I have no comment about whether they’re artists or frauds. That won’t keep people from making me eat shit over the fact that I listen to their music. That’s okay. I’m a big boy. I can take it.)

So what? Why does this even matter?

Here’s my concern. I think a lot of us, me included, underappreciate art. Art appreciation has two paths of least resistance:

  1. It comes from artists we already know and love.
  2. It’s something we respond so strongly too, that we can’t help but learn more about the artist and fall even more deeply in love.

And there’s nothing wrong with either of those paths. Both lead to an immense appreciation for art.

My concern is with the art that doesn’t come from someone we love, and doesn’t immediately make an awe-inspiring impression. I think we’d appreciate a lot more art if we took the time to understand who made it, and how, and why. If we learned the story, the context, the timeline…we’d pull more meaning out of the art that surrounds us.

It’s kind of like an acquired taste. If we only ate the foods that we found immediately delicious, we’d have a limited diet. It’s through becoming more familiar with different kinds of foods that we discover the most interest parts of our palate.

Like I said at the beginning, art is about connection. I fear that we’re missing out on a lot of connection, just by letting potentially meaningful art wash right over us. And it’s particularly shameful today, given how easy it is to connect with each other through technology.

Here’s a personal example. My wife is an amateur photographer. As a wedding present, I asked a local artist to paint a reproduction of one of my wife’s photos on a canvas. I asked the artist to use her own style, her own imagination…just use my wife’s photo as a jumping off point. And it turned out beautifully.

I found the artist through a local restaurant. My wife and I had been standing in line, and we saw some really nice looking paintings hanging on the wall. They were from the local artist that I later contacted. I went back to the restaurant without my wife, bought one of the paintings, and then contacted the artist about commissioning a new piece. I gave both paintings to my wife as wedding presents.

I think the world would be a better place if we, me certainly included, spent a little more time and effort appreciating the art around us. Learn about the artists. Get to know them. Understand their gifts for what they’re meant to be.

The world could use a little more connection these days. We can do a better job of loving each other. And appreciating all the great art around us is an easy way to make some much needed progress.

I am the founder and author of STEM to Business, where I help scientists and engineers build their business acumen.

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