I did. It took me a while. I have a degree in art history but I got that years ago and I only just figured out art last week. Art history classes don’t answer the question, “what is art,” or help you “get” art; they mostly just give you a string of images of art that other people have decided were Very Important and then tell you the historical context for that art. There’s a lot of sitting in dark rooms with slide after slide being force fed into your eyes, Clockwork Orange-style, and then you write about it.
For a long time I considered a piece of art “good” —or “successful,” in my chosen parlance— if I believed that the artist had something he wanted to say and said it and then I understood it exactly as he meant it. My favorite artist used to be Magritte for this reason, because Magritte is specific and kind of obvious and I felt like I “got” what he was trying to say. I decided that every artist had his own code, and my job as a student of art was to figure out that code and speak it like a language. Turns out this was an incredibly limited way of looking at things.
Two musician friends of mine were responsible for disrupting this belief. Both repeatedly had this experience, they told me, where they’d finish a set and someone from the audience would come up to them and say how much this one song resonated with them for this particular reason, and that particular reason had absolutely nothing to do with what inspired the song. Like, the person in the audience thought the song really spoke to how she felt when she broke up with her boyfriend but really the song was written about waking up late for work. I had trouble with this at first. But my musician friends were not only fine with it, it moved them. It made them feel like artists.
I think a lot of complaints about art, in general, as a thing we’re supposed to believe is important but more often than not fail to understand, stem from this conflict. Which is more important, the subjective experience or the objective understanding? Every now and then the pressure builds up and someone can’t take it anymore and writes something like “I DON’T GET ART” for Vice Magazine and then a small tizzy ensues that resolves nothing and everyone just goes back to tweeting about their cats. But the “I DON’T GET ART” thing really bothers me the way “WOMEN AREN’T FUNNY” really bothers other people, because it encourages the lazy habit of reductionist thinking, implying that this ignorance is somehow correct and thus superior.
That Vice Magazine thing made me start thinking about art again, as if I was unconsciously formulating a response, and so I was open to Big Questions About Art when I went to the Keith Haring exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum two weeks ago and suddenly figured art out. Haring did this thing where he invented a whole system of symbols —dogs barking, UFOs, dolphins, penises, androgynous human figures— and sort of mixed and matched them and put them in various contexts. Each of these symbols meant something to him, but what they meant to him wasn’t all-important. He used them as a framework for the viewer to ascribe their own meaning. His intention wasn’t to communicate anything, but to invite the audience to see whatever they wanted to see. It was a balance of the objective with the subjective.
This possibly very obvious thing had never occurred to me before, certainly not in my art history indoctrination sessions in college, and immediately I found myself applying it to everything. And that’s how I now define what art is. An artist is someone trained in a technique and often a subscriber to the fashion of her contemporaries. Her own variations on that style are dictated by personal life experiences —the things she finds beautiful, the reactions she has to events and politics and anything else that causes emotion to build and build until it requires an outlet that isn’t self-destructive— and then she creates this thing. An art. An objective work that has a distinct reason you can probably figure out if you talk to the artist. But that’s not the end of it, because art is a two-way mirror. For the viewer of the art the artist’s objective experience merely creates a vessel. The art is a heart-shaped box that you fill with whatever automatically pours out of you when you see it. The artist created something objective, you get to fill it with something subjective. Sometimes nothing will pour out of you. But sometimes it will, and that’s the experience of art and the why and what of art. If your experience and the artist’s experience match up, great. But who cares.
I’ll probably discard this understanding of art in a few months like I have every understanding before it. At the moment I’m curious whether, if we assume I’m right, the artistic experience can be quantified. Like, if the quality of art is dictated by the sheer number of people who have that experience. More equals better? Or maybe more equals worse? Anyway, I’m done for now.
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