Indefinite Angles: Finding the Familiar in Modern Art

Consuming art is a funny old thing. Connecting with a painting, a sculpture – anything really – is an intensely intimate experience to go through. Here is something made by someone you most likely don’t know, have never met, and will never meet (as they’re either dead, far away or super famous), and they’ve made it for you. Or so it seems. It’s strange that, through the work of others, we come to know ourselves better. Just imagine: a stranger may show you truths about yourself that you never even fathomed you could reach, let alone touch…hold…see…absorb with all your senses.

I think about this a lot. It baffles me how what we see in art can resonate so deeply with our lives and how we form such connections through the act of viewing. Alan Bennett (one of the wisest people I know of) doesn’t have the answer, but I always find myself returning to this quote:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Alan Bennett, The History Boys

So in this, I guess we feel comforted by the fact that someone at some point has felt the same way, enough so that they decided to commit it to the real world through an artistic act. And this is poignant – through their work, we know we are not alone. And as we are hurtling through an ever-expanding space into some unknown kind of black void whilst desperately clinging to a giant rock, I would say that finding comfort in others is a rather understandable, nay essential practice to keep.

But different things are important to different people. To some, it may be the brushwork, the use of colours, the skill and craftsmanship obvious in its execution that stands out, whereas others may find that what fascinates them is the form, the composition, the context, or the idea that the artwork represents. This individuality and subjectivity of viewing became especially apparent to me when, on a day-trip to London, my grandparents decided they’d like to ‘have a little look’ at the Tate. I’m gonna be honest – I was dubious, as their tastes are traditional to say the least, and I just had the feeling that maybe concept art wasn’t going to be for them. But I was proved wrong – and this is because there isn’t one way to see art, but a thousand.

The main thing I noticed was that my grandparents seemed worried about whether or not they could understand a piece of art, and I found this interesting. There’s this kind of anxiety over modern art which I’ve seen in many people, myself included. It’s the nagging feeling that there’s somehow a side of it which we are excluded from on account of being amateur viewers – that we’re somehow missing something. This of course is not the case. When I look at a piece, I don’t necessarily try to find a definitive meaning, but try and find something that I can take away from it. I think that, instead of trying to believe the artists’ intentions, we should be selfish in our consumption of art. See what you want and take what you want, because the artist sure as hell ain’t gonna know (how very post-modern of me).

But what really touched me was how individual and personal my grandparents’ remarks were. My granny Muriel, 71 years-old and from a farming family, noticed how a white canvas with smudges of blue paint and holes smashed through it reminded her of sheep. And then there was my Granda, Jim, whose ability to fix anything constantly astounds me – he’s someone who appreciates craftsmanship, so he was subsequently drawn to structural works. When looking at a piece called Indefinite Spaces by Spanish artist Francisco Sobrino, he just stood there for a few minutes, scrutinising its structure intensely, before stepping back and saying ‘Well that looks like it took some putting together’. I watched as they navigated their first video installation, Workers Leaving the Factory in 11 Decades by Harun Farocki, as they started matching up the headphones to the screens. They said early on in the exhibition ‘well that’s not something I’d want on my wall’, to which I replied ‘but is that all art can do?’. I think they got what I was trying to say through this installation – here was a work that challenged the viewer not just to view but to interact. A work that required work to be enjoyed.

And that hour wandering round the Tate was all I needed to realise that they’d found something to take away for themselves. Modern art was no longer this scary, confusing thing because in it they had found the familiar, the comforting, and the loved. And this is exactly what art should do: in a world of strangers and the unknown, it helps us find our way home.

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