I’ll be your mirror – seeing yourself in Art.

Art is a difficult one to approach. Sometimes it can be a bit daunting, out of our league, and above all, high maintenance. Sometimes it’s as if it’s playing hard to get when really, it’s not – it’s just we might not quite know how to deal with it. I find museums and galleries a stressful experience at the best of times. A place which is considered to bring some sort of calm and cultural contemplation to a busy city or town becomes for me an angst filled crisis of intelligence. Many a time I’ve found myself looking at a painting or an object, desperately trying to channel what could be meant by it, and failing miserably.

The truth is, I don’t know how to appropriately react to souvenirs of a forgotten past, or how to appreciate an artistic piece for its semantic capabilities.  And I’m not sure that’s just me. In museums across the world cultural appreciation is being enacted silently, where business people and students alike look at works seemingly in deep thought, when really they’re thinking ‘Jesus, what exactly am I supposed to be thinking about this?’ There really are some things that the 100 or so words in the description box can’t tell you.

Maybe it is because the very nature of art itself is a difficult one. When faced with an assignment on what might possibly be the most frustrating question in the world: ‘what is art?’ I found myself going round in a circle, trying to take in what is altogether far too many possibilities. It’s enough to make you want to smash a priceless Van Gogh painting over your head, if you can climb past the legions of tourists who come to see it every day.

The ‘famous’ painting or object of a museum complicates the situation further. It is accepted that a visit to the British Museum will result in an appreciation of the Rosetta Stone or the Louvre, with its Mona Lisa. These works are in serious danger of being appreciated only for their infamy, and serve the purpose of satisfying a tourist that they’ve really seen the best of the museum, and becoming a tick in a box. They often act as guides to museums, giving off the distinct impression that it’s what you’ve seen, not how you’ve seen it. It’s an understandable reaction, but a better consciousness of the museum experience in relation to our own thoughts could make the experience quite a bit more enjoyable.

The truth about art is that nobody really knows what it is, or how to define it, and that’s where the enjoyment comes from. Whether it’s an example of the blood and sweat that goes into creating works of hyper realism or simply a case of free writing across a page, museums and galleries show a transgression in thought, a far cry from the museum’s perceived stuffy and outdated image. The two questions we really should be asking, when visiting a museum or gallery and looking at a certain object or artwork is: ‘When the hell was this made?’ and ‘what exactly is it meant to mean to me?’  It really is that simple. But what exactly do we take from a work depicting a single dot in the middle of a blank canvas, or a pile of stacked chairs?

Well ‘it’s rubbish’ might be the first reaction, but why is it rubbish? If you think you could do it yourself, then what makes this one able to be presented in a national gallery? Is it novelty value, or just the fact that semantic meaning has been applied to it as an afterthought? We’ve certainly all rolled our eyes at a seemingly simplistic work claiming that it discusses ‘the emptiness of society’ or something in that vein. But even if we hate a piece of work, so much so that it makes our blood boil, we should take that feeling, and inspire ourselves to do something better with it. Inspiration doesn’t just come from positive experiences, though there are plenty of these to be had in museums and galleries too. Reading an object or artwork, analysing exactly what aspect of it drew you to walk over to it in the first place, is inevitably more rewarding than just seeing it as a ‘whole’. Making that connection with art is crucial to its power, and it is our semantic reaction to it that shapes its meaning.

Untitled Painting by Michael Baldwin quite literally asks you to see yourself in art. (Tate Modern).
Untitled Painting by Michael Baldwin quite literally asks you to see yourself in art. (Tate Modern).

I’m hoping that I can conquer my fear of museums. Going in there with a purpose, with a determined stride and a willingness to let it wash over you and to be inspired by what you see, purely intensely inspired, fulfills the very purpose of museums and more – it means that you can leave the museum with much more than a postcard. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that museums aren’t just an intelligence test, where thousands of pieces of artwork are put in one place to mock us over our distinct lack of knowledge of renaissance art or otherwise.

Museums are a creative experience above all, which serve to enrich the mind not just with facts or historical knowledge. They are an example of the artistic chain flowing from one period of history to another, and if we all stand there in the modern age looking confused, then that chain will get inevitably weaker.  It is okay to ask the question: ‘what do I see of myself in it?’ and it is downright necessary that we do.

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