Once upon a time, art was mainly created to pay tribute to a god, tell a story or to decorate, and it’s meaning was obvious to the members of the culture. During the last two centuries, visual art of even the remotest cultures has traveled all over the world, art forms have influenced and developed in so many new directions, that it would be arrogant to demand that we ought to understood it all without introduction. Art critics, art historians, curators and artists are supposed to enlighten and inform us, but unfortunately, eye-opening introductions are not too common. Instead of communicating, those experts often fill our heads with complicated, trendy jargon that confuses and intimidates us enough to be too scared to ask questions.
But to be fair to the interpreters of art, translating visual art into words isn’t easy. Most art works have more than one meaning and much is to be “read between the lines”. The fact that a work of art looks and means a different thing to me than to you, makes it even more confusing. Art is not objective, and the condition that it can be seen in different ways is fascinating – but it’s also a real challenge to anyone trying to explain a piece of art, without misleading or spoiling it for other viewers. Some works just appeal to us and we don’t necessarily need to figure out why we enjoy them. Other pieces seem strange, without a theme or a recognizable pattern, without…
….here we go, listing all the things that we cannot find, and this is precisely why we don’t like a piece of art: we can’t find what we expect, know or understand. But often, works like these can open up a new perspective, if we take a little time to let them speak to us.
Finding the evidence
The best approach to unfamiliar or challenging works is positive critique: trying to find out “what is there” by going close, stepping back, looking again and if possible, asking the artist what was intended. Of course it’s much easier to lament over what is not there, and this is probably where the term “art critique” originated.
Prominent art critics of all ages have taken great pride in verbally ripping works and artists apart, impressing the public with their authority and knowledge – only to be proved wrong a few years later, when the shunned works have become recognized as new masterpieces. Many of the great heroes of art weren’t accepted in their lifetime. Cézanne, Van Gogh, Monet and Gauguin were either not known or ridiculed by the critics and curators, while they quietly changed the course of art history.
Unlike positive critique, negative judgment can do a lot of harm to artists, and we have to ask ourselves, why some critics/historians and unfortunately also fellow artists indulge in it. The obvious answer is: competition. Trendy art critics jealously defend the champions of the current fashion, and many artists can’t see beyond their own perception, regardless of the true nature of art, which is to reflect, demonstrate and celebrate our cultural and individual differences.
Some artists develop their ideas and techniques together, communicating about their explorations and discoveries, and there are always some who go their own way in solitude. But however they go about it, it usually takes them a few years to develop their work. Yet the public is demanding a brand-new experience every time they go to an exhibition opening. Fair enough, but instead of expecting something new at first sight, we should look deeper, ask more questions, and take an interest in the development of the artists working in our community. This would encourage artistic growth, progress of thought and technique for the artists, and better information and appreciation of art for the public.