According to Jack Donaghy, the fictional CEO on the now-syndicated NBC show 30 Rock, the only three appropriate subjects for a painting are 1) horses, 2) ships with sails, and 3) men staring off into the distance while holding swords.
The joke, of course, is that these are common, safe subjects that are likely to be free of surprises and challenges. In many ways, it’s what we began with, from our earliest paintings on cave walls that featured horses, to our romantic embattled stallions; from our French allegories of ships to a rather antiquated idea of brave men. The joke is how this contrasts with where we are now as art makers, consumers, lovers: often, any where else.
One myth about museums, or about the art world, is how unapproachable modern and contemporary art can be. I’ve often felt this way, standing in front of a pile of candy or a cardboard chainsaw with the Chanel logo. I’ve thought, “Am I doing this wrong?” Thankfully, in each of those instances, there was a wonderful write-up beside the piece, and after I finished reading about it, it changed not only how I saw the piece: it changed me. Standing in front of that pile of candy, I cried.
But I’ve heard this before: wondering if you’re missing something, if you’re doing it wrong; wondering why it’s in a museum if you–or your kid– could have made it. So, for the purposes of debunking this myth, I turned to some museum staff to help us out.
I asked Annie Burbidge-Ream, our Art In A Box Coordinator, to speak about why contemporary art can sometimes seem so unapproachable:
I believe that contemporary art when taken from a traditionalist view challenges the viewer because of its lack of instant recognition and understanding as an art object. There are no longer any particular materials that are easily recognizable as being “fine” art mediums. Art is not only made from oil paint, creating a illusionistic two-dimensional picture window into a certain world. Today art can be made from a diversity of mediums from people, words, trash, multi-media installations and the internet. Even the most mundane activities like going on a walk or sitting on a chair, can be art. I think that a lot of people feel uncomfortable with contemporary art because at its very nature contemporary art is meant to challenge conventional ideas of what a work of art is.
When I asked Whitney Tassie, our curator of contemporary art, this is what she had to say:
In terms of empowering viewers that may not be familiar with modern and contemporary art history, I like to reference Roland Barthe’s 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” which argues against emphasizing the intentions and biographical context of an artist when searching for “meaning” in an artwork. He wrote that the essential meaning of a work depends on the personally informed impressions/interpretations of the viewer, rather than the objectives of the artist; “a text’s unity lies not in its origins,” or its creator, “but in its destination,” or its audience.
One of my favorite things about walking the galleries of the UMFA is that I will encounter art from many eras and countries. The UMFA has an outstanding collection of modern and contemporary art, and our galleries are always changing, which means there is often something new and exciting to see.
When speaking about the value of a museum collecting, caring for, and displaying modern and contemporary art, Burbidge-Ream said, “Not only are they important movements and practices in the history of art, but they also reflect larger cultural implications of happenings in the world at specific times. More importantly, museums are meant to be safe places to challenge and create spaces of informal learning and discussions where visitors can come and learn something new, find something they love or hate, or simply be exposed to new ideas and different modes of thinking, looking and approaching the world outside the Museum’s walls.”
So, how can we look at contemporary art? To break it down simply: 1. Stop. 2. Look. 3. What do you see? 4. Why do you see that, and how do you know that’s what you see?
Burbidge-Ream, who works in our education department, offered this:
1. Be opened minded. Try to leave your preconceived notions at the door and approach a work of art willing to learn something new or see something in a new way.
2. Always work from the object. Breakdown what you see. Analyze the parts (color, light, texture, lines, space and depth, materials, movement, scale.) Don’t get too theoretical or intellectual, keep it simple when trying to interpret the art primarily, work from what you see.
3. Ask yourself what you wonder about an object. Can the object answer the question for you? If not, maybe you can do a little digging on your own. Think of yourself as an anthropologist searching and exploring for knowledge and information.
4. Have a conversation. Talk it out and have a discussion with someone. It doesn’t matter if you have a degree in art history, are a MD, or are a mom with a small child, discussion can be an important part of the art-viewing and art-enjoying process.
5. Try to have fun. People love to make art serious and staunch, intellectual and pompous. I believe art should be for everyone. Try to have fun. Find some humor in the experience. Art can be funny too!
6. If nothing else, ask yourself if you like something (judge the artwork). Strong emotions, positive or negative, are what makes art powerful.
So, tell us: how do you view modern and contemporary art?