Familiarity is not the most important element in experiencing art.
What do “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the “Mona Lisa,” Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” all have in common? Well, for one thing, they’re some of the familiar workhorses of our culture: things that a lot of people automatically think of when they hear the word “art.”
Another thing they have in common is their immediate accessibility. Both a toe-tapping march and the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth are unambiguous and memorable. If people don’t know the title of the painting “American Gothic” they’ll still recognize Wood’s regionalist portrait of a dour man holding a pitchfork standing beside his daughter. Leonardo’s painting known as the Mona Lisa is one of the most recognizable images in the world.
I think it’s natural for most audiences to favor the familiar and accessible instead of the unknown and difficult. Even the most seasoned patron has certain works that he loves to hear in the concert hall, or certain paintings to which she immediately goes upon entering the museum.
If anything exploits this tendency, it’s Hollywood. The predilection of studios for sequels, not having to make the audience learn new characters — sometimes not even a new plot — is a form of this. The way many people seem to think about movies is that if we’re not being entertained in a way that’s immediately comprehensible, then we’re not being served. “Thinking is boring,” a New York Times film critic wrote sarcastically in a condemnation of the formulaic Hollywood blockbuster.
In contrast, there is art. All art need not be familiar. In fact, it shouldn’t be: It doesn’t work that way. Art broadens horizons. In dealing with a work of art that’s unfamiliar, author C.S. Lewis proffers this advice: “Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears. Take in what is there and give no thought to what might have been there or what is somewhere else.” It’s a pretty good course of action.
Giving “no thought to what might have been there” is a productive stance in the face of any work of art that at first seems challenging. Listen to an unfamiliar piece of music with an open mind. Don’t worry that you’ve never heard it before; In fact, enjoy that you haven’t. You will never get another chance to hear it for the first time. Look at the sculpture sitting before you on its own terms, without trying to impose any preconditions on it.
It’s challenging yes, but often this challenge comes only from unfamiliarity. Not every piece is one that you already knew when you sat down. Nor should it be. What’s really involved here is an act of faith – faith that art is powerful enough to bring you around to it. It’s often the key to discovering a new favorite.