There are two ways of looking at art, and both ways together can help you understand it better that you ever have before.
Last week I talked about attending an international art fair, and how, among other things, it gives you the chance to see works of art you’ve never seen but by artists you’ve heard of all your life. It struck me as I wandered among the displays that day that there are two ways to understand art: that is, art can be—needs to be—understood in two different ways. It’s incumbent upon us to sort this out and do both. (more)
One way, is by doing what you always do when you’re standing in front of a painting or listening to a song; you just look or you listen. You process in your head what you’re seeing or hearing and think about it just on its own terms. This is what we do naturally—it happens without us thinking about it. In a painting we see shapes, we see line and color, form and content, and decide in a flash what we think about it. How much it looks like reality or how much it makes us feel a particular way. In music we hear a beat, the instrumentation, a key signature (major or minor at least), and we listen to the lyrics if there are lyrics. It’s all about us and our reaction to the piece of art right in front of us. It’s singular and independent.
The other way is quite different but no less natural—it just takes a little more thought. It’s to think about how this particular work of art fits in with all the others you know. This is the bigger and more timeless view, and thinking this way will let you see something that’s an individual work as a part of a much greater and ever-evolving whole. If you’re a baseball fan you already do this every time you wonder if Mike Trout’s slugging percentage is comparable to Mickey Mantle’s.
This is actually the key to understanding Art with a capital A. It’s to remember that art isn’t just one painting; it’s not even a bunch of paintings—it’s an ongoing conversation across centuries. This piece of music or this sculpture doesn’t just exist on its own terms—it exists as part of an continuum. As independent as we may think artists to be, they aren’t completely independent. For an artist, everyone who’s done before what he or she is doing now has an influence on what comes out. Poets react against poets, painters against painters, composers against composers. I don’t necessarily mean “rebel against,” although that itself is a form both of reaction and an acknowledgment of quality (After all, one ought not to feel the need to rebel against anything that’s not worthy of authority—although that undermines the whole romantic notion of a rebel without a cause.)
If you talk to artists you’ll pick up on this. For them, influences are powerful; and then today’s artists become influences to subsequent generations.
As you walk through a museum or an art fair, this is the best question to keep in mind when you’re trying to make sense of what you’re seeing. It will start to open up the broader art world like nothing else you can do, and it will help you make sense of what otherwise might just seem to be—taken on its own terms— a confusing mess that makes you want to say “How is this Art?”